Image courtesy of the White House

In political Washington, August is typically a time of exodus and quiet repose. Members of Congress flee in the direction of the airport; everyone else heads for the beach or the pool. But just as Members of Congress boarded their flights, a far more interesting group of leaders stepped off their planes and descending upon D.C. During these first two weeks of August, Washington has rolled out figurative and literal red carpets to welcome hundreds of prominent Africans from across the continent as part of the Young Africa Leaders Initiative and the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit. After accusations from African leaders, Africa hands in the U.S., and business leaders on both sides that the Obama Administration and the United States as a whole haven’t paid the continent the attention it deserves, the Americans are attempting a course correction. Africa is on the agenda, and in a big way.

When most Americans hear the term “Africa,” they’re apt to think of feuding warlords, flamboyantly dressed tribesmen, never-ending civil war, talking animals, starving children that guilt them into finishing their dinner plate, or, at the moment, the terror of Ebola. Most of us see a monolithic Africa that deserves our sympathy and our charity, but not our partnership. Just one percent of U.S. foreign direct investment is destined for Africa. As President Obama himself noted, our trade with the entire continent is equal to our trade with the country of Brazil. Bogged down by plummeting oil prices, U.S. trade with Africa actually decreased by $40 billion between 2011 and 2013 from $125 billion to $85 billion.

At the same time, as seemingly every media outlet has pointed out, China is doubling down on its economic ties with Africa. Trade between China and Africa grew by $44 billion between 2011 and 2013, from $166 billion to $210 billion. President Obama appeared to take a jab at the Chinese when he said, in a speech part of this week’s U.S. – Africa Business Forum, “We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.” (At this time, let us appreciate how much the United States has changed its Africa policy since the 17th century.)

To that end – emphasizing the people, the talent, the potential – the White House played its cards perfectly by hosting 500 young professionals between the ages of 25 and 35 from across Sub Saharan Africa as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative. The YALI fellows spent six weeks in the United States at various college campuses, including Yale, learning leadership skills and receiving mentoring. In Washington, they heard from President Obama, the First Lady, and various other political superstars who repeated phrases like “you are Africa’s future” ad nauseum. The fellows – the Ugandan man working to help women empower themselves, the Liberian woman who created a girl’s pageant to promote the importance of education, and 498 others – are obviously deserving of the accolade. When Michelle Obama spoke to the youth leaders, the audience’s energy was electric – laughing, cheering, shouting “I love you” so that Michelle could reply, “And I love you.”

The speech touched on familiar themes for the First Lady: the empowerment of women, their importance in fueling Africa’s next growth spurt, and the protection of girls who too often face violence in their home countries. She touched on race, describing America’s shameful history and the discrimination that members of her family experienced. But, she told the fellows, such challenges can be confronted, and eventually, conquered. She finished, “And today, I live in the White House.”  At that, the crowd rose to its feet and the applause shook the room. After she finished speaking, the First Lady embraced her audience: literally. It seemed like every single person who had been sitting in the first row got a hug from Mrs. Obama, who moved across the room in a tight knot of frantic well-wishers, selfie-takers, cameras flashes, and stern Secret Service agents. As she exited, she waved goodbye and everyone waved back, as if, in the previous forty minutes, they had all become good friends.

That sentiment of personal connection reemerged during the White House dinner for the African leaders (highlighted by the First Lady of Cameroon’s hairdo.) “The blood of Africa runs through our family, so for us, the bonds between our countries, our continents are deeply personal,” the President said. He raised his glass and toasted to “the Africa that is rising and so full of promise.” It is in this way, not with money or lucrative contracts, but with spirit and a warm embrace, that the United States has a leg up in not just making money out of Africa, but making money with Africa.

To that end, President Obama announced $14 billion dollars in new private investments by U.S. companies in Africa, including G.E., Coke, and Marriott. The Obama Administration will direct $7 billion in new funds toward a laundry list of programs, from Power Africa, a USAID program aiming to bring electricity to 60 million African households, to the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, which will use $110 million to train African militaries in rapid response.

The deals sound great, but the long term trajectory of U.S. – Africa relations won’t be determined by a couple of weeks of symposiums, cocktails, press conferences, invite-only bashes, and fancy dinner parties. As U.S. officials repeated vigorously, African countries must improve their infrastructure, security, and human resources in order to make lasting inroads in global markets. They have our attention. Now, they have to act.

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