U.S. President Barack Obama poses with more than 50 leaders of African countries at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit (WIkimedia Commons) The first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held in Washington, D.C. from August 4-6, provided a high-profile platform to showcase the breadth of U.S. engagement in Africa. From its leading role in providing private investment on the African continent to its longstanding financial and technical support for public health, agriculture, trade preferences for African exports, and peacekeeping operations, the United States was rightly able to point to decades-long substantive involvement on issues of priority for Africans. This was complemented by relatively new undertakings investing in youth and power generation, where the United States has leveraged more than $20 billion in new private investments to supply 60 million African households with power.

The summit also provided an opportunity to draw out subtler themes guiding U.S. engagement in Africa, such as the shift away from a government-to-government, aid-based relationship to an emphasis on the U.S. private sector and a focus on partnerships operating through African-led initiatives. With $33 billion in new private sector commitments and growing interest in the increasingly economically dynamic and youthful continent from major corporations like General Electric, IBM, Ford Motor, Lockheed Martin, Marriot International, Citigroup, and Coca-Cola, tangible enthusiasm was visible from both sides of the Atlantic.

In effect, the summit was an opportunity for the United States to tout a strategy aimed primarily at building the capacity of African states to provide “public goods”—that is, institutions and infrastructure that benefit their societies at large. But the true value of this—or any—summit will be determined by how it advances the relationship between the participants moving forward. To take the measure of this summit, then, the question will be, how well have the United States and its African partners been able to sustain their commitments to the range of public goods they have put forward? In many ways, this sustainability standard represents a more stringent benchmark than solely putting up additional financial outlays. Experience over the years has shown that it has been the failure to sustain an initiative—be it maintaining infrastructure and equipment, managing bureaucratic systems like public health or agriculture extension networks, or establishing a financially viable model for consumers to pay for electricity, water, or garbage collection—that has been the key stumbling block to progress in Africa.

At the root of this challenge of sustainability is another topic raised at the summit that has gone largely overlooked by the media: governance, particularly the strength of democratic institutions. Countries governed by legitimate democracies have a proven track record of delivering superior living conditions for the majority of their citizens. While exceptions exist, the median rates of childhood mortality, primary school enrolment, access to clean water, and cereal productivity, among other measures, tend to be better in African countries with more political space and governmental accountability.

There are many reasons for this relationship, but the matter largely comes down to incentives. A country’s system of governance defines the rules by which its leaders acquire and hold onto power. If leaders—even those facing elections—do not feel compelled to respond to the priorities of ordinary citizens, leaders’ incentive to invest in public goods wanes dramatically. Likewise, if leaders are not required to publicly justify government budgets and maintain high standards of transparency for how public monies are allocated and spent, funding for public services will inevitably be diverted. In essence, a public goods strategy is only as strong as the government responsible for its provision.

Poor governance can play out in any number of ways. Corruption, for example, is widely recognized as a major drain on development and productive investments in Africa. African countries with weak controls on corruption are much more likely to experience stagnant (non-oil generated) economic growth.  According to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, 24 African countries rank in the bottom quartile of the 177 countries surveyed. A recent World Economic Forum report found that Africa currently loses more revenue through illicit outflows than it receives in aid and foreign direct investment.

Investors, especially those with capital assets to protect, are looking for countries with predictable legal environments and political stability. Stability tends to be greater in countries with more legitimate political and security institutions, which foster greater trust and cooperation among citizens. This is especially true in Africa, given that most of the instability witnessed by the continent today is generated from domestic grievances. Notably, two-thirds of the 23 African countries considered to be “highly fragile” in the latest State Fragility Index are governed by autocracies. This is particularly relevant across marginalized Muslim populations who, feeling alienated and distrustful of government, are vulnerable to mobilization by violent extremist groups infused with global jihadi ideology such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Boko Haram. In short, legitimacy matters.

Sustained progress in Africa, then, is contingent on further democratic gains. Therein, however, lies the problem. Despite commendable advances since the end of the Cold War, Africa’s democratic track record is decidedly checkered. Only a fifth of the roughly 50 African countries represented at the recent White House summit could be considered genuinely democratic. Although more than two dozen others have made various moves toward democratization, these efforts have either stalled or, alternatively, democratic instruments have merely been used as props to consolidate power.

With nearly every African country now holding elections, the process of distinguishing truly democratic states from those whose democratic institutions and processes remain superficial is no straightforward task. The norm of personality-driven, big-man politics persists even amongst leaders who are democratically elected—only to squelch further reforms once they enter office. Assessing genuine democracies will therefore require more than simply monitoring elections but gauging mechanisms of shared power and checks on Africa’s dominant heads of state as well.

In a similar way, protections for basic political liberties and human rights for minority groups and parties in Africa, a basic tenet of democratic culture, remain widely elusive. At least 17 African countries have enacted restrictive NGO laws or regulations that limit the operations of civil society organizations, many of which have been instituted within the past five years. Likewise, in a pattern that matches global trends, the number of African journalists who have been jailed or killed has been increasing over the past decade. Given the critical role played by freedom of expression in fostering debate and accountability, protections for journalists should be the canary in the coal mine for assessing the true extent of African democratization.

These governmental dynamics bear significantly on the success of the initiatives touted during last week’s summit in Washington. Regardless of the level of resources or external engagement employed, if the governmental foundation on which a partnership rests is rotten, the outcomes will be disappointing. These issues must also be considered against the backdrop of growing wealth disparity in Africa, a phenomenon often linked to cycles of corruption and political patronage. Coupled with a youth bulge and high rates of unemployment, perceptions of exploitation are deepening grievances and alienation amongst African populations, leading to an increasingly unstable social context in some localities. As the United States implements its Africa policy in the coming years, it will thus increasingly face a choice between partnering with African leaders or with African citizens.

Unsurprisingly, criticism of the United States for preaching too much about democracy and corruption comes not from average citizens but from certain African leaders (topics notably absent in Africa’s ongoing dialogue with China, an increasingly influential external actor on the continent). Similarly, there is pressure on the United States to relax its emphasis on democracy in favor of security interests in African countries facing extremist threats. But governance and stability often move in parallel in Africa. Thus, the United States should not shy away from distinguishing itself in its relations with the continent. Resisting the allure of perceived short-term trade-offs, and maintaining a focus on democracy and protection for basic civil liberties, gives the United States its best chance of realizing the sustained engagement needed to create and uphold the public goods that lie at the heart of U.S.-Africa relations. Partnership, in the end, depends on reliable partners.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the author's own.