Washington Announces Africa Initiative

By Charles Cobb, Jr.

Washington, DC

Posted May 17, 2001

A U.S. sub-Saharan African Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum is being established, and foreign, finance, and trade ministers from 35 African nations will meet in Washington in October to launch it, U.S. President George Bush announced Wednesday. The multilateral consultation is mandated by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that was enacted into law last year.

"The principals of the African Growth and Opportunity Act are important for Africa," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden. "But they're also important for the United States. Countries that respect markets and the rights of individuals are more likely to grow economically. They are more likely to achieve political stability....Strong African democracies with strong economies and healthy populations will contribute to a world that is more peaceful and more prosperous for all."

Attending the announcement were U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Representatives Philip Crane (R-IL) and Charles Rangel (D-NY), along with members of the African diplomatic corps. "We have to do this, not for the Africans, but for our country, beacuse it's the right thing to do," said Rangel. "Legislation by itself just won't work. People have to know we are serious."

By lowering trade barriers, combatting corruption, strengthening labor law and respecting human rights, thirty-five African nations have been certified as eligible for the duty free access to U.S.markets provided by AGOA. "These are countries that are moving toward market-based economies," said Bush.

Some potenially important African nations - Congo, Zimbabwe and Angola among them - are not yet eligble for AGOA's concessions.

The October discussions will consider "strategies to implement the economic and social reforms that will promote the AGOA agenda," the White House said in a background statement. Workshops will be held on public-private sector relationships, export standards, especially agriculturtal export standards, supporting small businesses, and trade policy reform. Plenaries on HIV/AIDS in the workplace, governance and corruption, developing competitive investment policies, and poverty reduction strategies are being considered.

Although AGOA calls for a Forum of Ministers, it is possible that this first gathering may also draw heads of state and government, said Lorenzo Bellamy, co-managing director of AGOA-Action. "I think we'll see heads of state coming. But even at the ministerial level, this is higher than it's ever been, and the ministers will be meeting with their counterparts here - not the third or fourth guy down from the top in Commerce or Treasury."

"To the extent practible," the AGOA says, the U.S. President should meet with heads of "eligble" governments, or governments "taking steps toward eligibility," every two years.

AGOA also "encourages" simultaneous sessions between NGOs annually and another set of annual meetings among private sector companies

African nations have their own agenda items as well, Bellamy says, particularily getting products added that are not yet on the list of elegible products for duty free access. "In general, if they can produce it cheaper add it to the list."

Speaking on behalf of the African diplomatic corp, Senagalese Ambassador Mamadou Mansour Seck called AGOA "the centerpiece" of U.S.-Africa economic cooperation. "We Africans have to put our house in order; we still need capacity building. Our private sector is still weak." He asked for more flexibility in AGOA's "conditionalities," an issue sure to come up again in October. "We want more exchange," Ambassador Seck said in the Rose Garden. "And we invite American business on board to give us more freedom of choice. At the same time, we want a fair price for our products. This is why we suggest another super AGOA to widen our cooperation and improve the implementation from what we have experienced."

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