Over 40 African leaders attended the US-Africa Leadership Summit in Washington last week. Some $33 billion in new private and public investment in Africa was announced. But beyond the substance of the deals, assistance and cooperation programmes, the big story was the extent of the US media coverage of the event. The summit received huge coverage in the US media: online, TV/radio and print media alike.The contrast between coverage of the US-Africa summit and coverage of last month's BRICS summit in Brazil could not have been more striking. The BRICS summit received virtually no media play in the United States at all, notwithstanding its global political and economic significance as an emerging constellation of cooperation amongst the world's major large middle-tier economies, not to mention the founding of a major new development bank and the summit's piggybacking on the global attention already directed at Brazil for the FIFA World Cup.
Many of the deals and programmes announced at the summit in Washington had already been agreed and were not a surprise to markets or politicians. Yet arguably the most significant impact of the summit was in public diplomacy. A large
audience of the US general public heard Africa's positive business growth story repeatedly over several days, and from different angles. Many Americans will not have known before last week that over half of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, or that Africa will be the fastest growing continent over the next decade. Lifestyle/feature stories gave visiting African presidents and prime ministers the sort of coverage usually doled out to David Cameron, Xi Jinping or Angela Merkel. The new focus on this growth narrative is crucial at a time when negative stories about Africa, which have long dominated media coverage in the US, have been more prominent than usual over the past two years: Ebola across West Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Islamists in Mali, political unrest in the Central African Republic, the Lord's Resistance Army in east-central Africa, al Shabab in Somalia and Kenya.
Why the US media attention now to Africa's economic boom, even as dozens of crises across the globe compete for screen time and space? The answer, as is so often the case in the historical Great Powers, is domestic politics. Hosting the US-Africa Leadership Summit at this time was a no-lose proposition for US President Barack Obama, who has not been rewarded with many successes in his foreign policy agenda lately. The Administration pulled out all the stops to ensure full court press for the summit. Although the deals announced were already done, the meeting created a favourable atmosphere for more deals in future by facilitating personal interaction and relationship building between heads of government and CEOs. Meetings of this kind can also be an effective enabler for public-private partnerships, provided there is sufficient buy-in from governments, international institutions and NGOs. The participation of former US President Bill Clinton, who heads the Clinton Global Initiative, was important, as was that of former New York Mayor and Bloomberg CEO Michael Bloomberg. US party politics was not an obstacle to the enthusiastic participation of former US President George W. Bush, who elevated the importance of Africa in US foreign policy significantly during his administration. At the summit Bush was recognized for the success of PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), the programme to assist nations in fighting HIV/AIDS that Bush's administration implemented and that contributed substantially to the acceleration of Africa's growth and development.
The US government add-ons announced at the summit are also significant: the upgrading of security partnerships and health assistance, particularly to address the Ebola threat, even if they tend to be focused on countries and regions where US has direct security interests. Clearly US policy is motivated at least to some degree by a perceived need to compete with China's growing influence in Africa, a point not lost on the Chinese media covering the summit. But the United States does differentiate itself from China, to the extent that the US government is willing to discuss human rights within the overall context of complex bilateral and multilateral relationships involving trade, investment, and aid. Washington may be criticized for applying human rights standards inconsistently: one might debate why certain leaders were excluded from the summit even as others attended. But there is some evidence that US human rights expectations may have an impact, as in the Uganda court ruling against Uganda's widely criticized anti-LGBT law just days before President Museveni was scheduled to attend the summit. The ruling, possibly coincidental,
highlights the complexity of the US-Uganda relationship. The United States needs and to some degree depends on a stable Uganda as a security and economic partner in a troubled region of East Africa, even whilst criticizing Uganda's stance on LGBT rights. The two governments both have an interest in continuing to work together.
As African nations develop their economies and political systems, there is both the room and the need for all the historical Great Powers to engage with Africa on development, each using their own frameworks: the US, EU, Japan, China, Australia and Canada. Hence the US-Africa Leadership Summit can be seen as an important contribution to that process. President Obama has come to focus on Africa late in his administration, but better late than never. It would have been helpful if President Obama could have found a bit more time to meet each African head of government individually, as by so doing he might have portrayed Africa in the US media less as a single 'place' and more as the complex and interlocking set of identities that it is. But given the apparent public diplomacy success of the summit for African governments and the Obama administration alike, one can hope that more events like it will follow in due course.
Dr Pigman holds a BA from Swarthmore College, MA from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a D Phil from the University of Oxford. He heads a global strategy and political consulting practice. He was formerly Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Change and Governance, Rutgers University, Newark; Member of the Faculty in Political Economy at Bennington College (Vermont, USA); Equity Research Liaison, CIBC World Markets, New York; Director of Graduate Studies, Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent at Brussels; and Lecturer in International Political Economy, University of Birmingham. His next book, Trade Diplomacy Transformed, is due out in late 2014.