Typically, people only look at Africa through the lenses of either humanitarian, health or security issues, says Amadou Sy, a senior fellow in the Africa Growth Initiative at the D.C.-based Brookings Institution.
That needs to change, says Sy, and a good start is the historic three-day U.S Africa Leaders Summit, which kicked off Monday and is gathering over 50 of Africa’s heads of state in D.C.
“If there is even one benefit from this summit, it’s to hopefully show to the American public what is new in Africa, how Africa can be vibrant, and the opportunities and the challenges,” Sy said.
“You have the Sehal, you have Boko Haram, you have Somalia, that’s what we hear about in the news. But the rest of Africa is moving really really fast," he said.
Those so-called hotspots of the continent often distract from how much has changed in Africa over the past couple decades, the economic gains it has made and why it’s important the U.S. fosters its continued growth, Sy says.
U.S. support 'makes sense'
“The bottom line is it makes sense,” Sy said. “After all, why did the U.S. support Europe after World War 2 and have the Marshall Plan? It was in its benefit to have a vibrant, economically strong Europe for trade. The same thing with Africa.”
Foreign direct investment creates jobs and incomes for Americans, meaning that the U.S. does not want to miss out on Africa's growth potential, he said.
"You want to be part of that in terms of commerce, in terms of trade, in terms of investment,” Sy said. “So we’re talking about jobs, we’re talking about profits.
"And for strategic reasons also. Nobody wants to see a region of the world that is unstable."
Last year, the institute put out a report titled: Top Five Reasons Why Africa Should Be a Priority for the United States. The report argued, in part, that the security of African countries was interlinked to U.S. security (and broader global security) as was helping African countries expand their access to energy and manage their oil and natural gas resources.
Ailments only part of the picture
Africa still continues to struggle, and has some significant obstacles to overcome. More than 400 million people in Africa live in extreme poverty, one in three is malnourished, over 500 million suffer from water-borne diseases and 24 million are afflicted with HIV, according to George Ingram, a senior fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet Ingram also notes that’s only part of the picture.
“It is time we approach the Africa narrative with enthusiasm, maybe cautious enthusiasm, but enthusiasm nonetheless,” Ingram wrote in a recent blog.
“It would be easy to focus on these statistics and see Africa as hopeless, as has been all too common. But a more holistic picture reveals trends that are cause for considerable optimism.”
From 2000 to 2010, six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies were in Africa, and Africa was the fastest-growing continent at 5.6 per cent in 2013, Ingram wrote.
Over the last 10 years, there have been fewer coups, more democratization, rapid urbanization, and some success stories, Sy said.
For example, almost everybody in Africa has a mobile phone, including those living in rural areas, Sy said. And a number of the biggest companies are already in Africa, including Microsoft, Wal-Mart and Google, which translates its pages into local languages.
This growth has also created an African middle class — although economists debate over how much daily income an individual must earn before being considered middle class.
Regardless, Sy said this new middle class has meant new opportunities in terms of retail and financial services.
“You see malls. Growing up in Senegal, I never saw a mall before,” Sy said. “Now you have malls everywhere.”
China investment is well entrenched in the continent and has become the largest bilateral trade partner with Africa, surpassing the U.S in 2009.
But other countries are also interested in boosting trade, Sy said, including India and Malaysia.
“You hear about this south-south investment. It has bloomed in Africa.”
As for the summit, Sy said no one expects a big cheque from the U.S. government for big aid or infrastructures projects.
"It’s really an opportunity to come up with a road map when it comes to U.S.-Africa relations."
"You have to look at the summit as a step. Hopefully they will have road map with tangible goal posts that can be monitored."
Jendayi Frazer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in a recent interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, the “biggest outcome is the event itself, which puts the focus on Africa and concentrates the attention of those within the administration and hopefully within the American public about the importance of Africa.”