Inside Trade
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Whitaker: White House, Congress not serious enough on Africa trade policy

February 11, 2022

Neither the Biden administration nor lawmakers from either party are paying urgently needed, “high-level” attention to U.S. trade policy toward Africa, according to former assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa Rosa Whitaker, who warns that the U.S. is failing to recognize the continent’s “strategic importance” in countering China.

“I think we have another administration -- after successive administrations -- that's not taking Africa very seriously. And I believe that, as a result, America will wake up on the wrong side of history,” Whitaker told Inside U.S. Trade in an interview. “Their policy is ‘Prosper Africa’ and a review -- maybe a review of USAID,” she said. Prosper Africa is an initiative involving 17 federal agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, designed to increase trade and investment between the U.S. and African countries. It was launched during the Trump administration.

Whitaker heads a consulting firm that specializes in business in Africa.

She and other former officials last November urged lawmakers during a House Ways & Means trade subcommittee hearing to set out a clearer strategy for U.S. trade policy in Africa, including by prioritizing discussions on renewing and potentially updating the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the U.S.’ two-decade-old preferential trade program involving countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Whitaker, who served as AUSTR for Africa under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, played a key role in conceiving and implementing AGOA, which is set to expire in 2025.

Lawmakers in both parties expressed support during the hearing for expanding trade ties with Africa, but Whitaker contends they are moving too slowly. There is not enough “political capital” at the highest levels to advance key policy actions, she said, despite “good understanding” of the issue and “commitment” at the staff level.

House Ways & Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-MA) last month called on the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate the impacts of AGOA.

According to Whitaker, such a report would be more useful if it addressed not just AGOA’s impacts -- already well-understood, she said -- but also “what we're going to do next, how do we build on AGOA?”

In a November speech laying out the Biden administration’s policy toward Africa, Secretary of State Antony Blinken -- in Nigeria on his first trip to the region since taking office -- noted efforts to support trade and investment via Prosper Africa as well as AGOA, saying the administration was “working to make sure African countries take full advantage” of the trade preference program.

He also expressed support for the African Continental Free Trade Area, a continental integration effort led by the African Union that went into effect last year. “[W]e want to see Africa’s economic power in the world grow,’ he said.

In a Dec. 22 letter to House Ways & Means trade subcommittee Chair Earl Blumenauer, Whitaker argued that effective U.S. trade policy requires complementary investment policy, which she said has been critically missing.

“AGOA triggered a meaningful trade response, but not the hoped-for U.S. investment response,” she wrote. “Too many of the benefits have gone either to the hydrocarbon sector, which does not need them (and from dependence on which Africa must, in any event, be helped to wean itself) or to exporters sourcing inputs from China and other low-cost producers. That has done little to support the desired diversification or deepening of African economies or the growth of regional value chains.”

Whitaker in her letter elaborated on a proposal she floated during the November hearing that would incentivize U.S. investment on the continent to advance “strategic objectives” such as “pro-growth decarbonization, protection of carbon sinks like the Congo Basin rainforest, strengthened health and digital infrastructure, and our own access to minerals critical for the needs of the green economy -- cobalt, for example -- as ‘wolf warrior’ China seeks a lock on the market.”

She warned that as the U.S. lags in its trade and investment policy toward Africa, China is gaining influence via its Belt and Road Initiative.

House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-TX) and House Ways & Means trade subcommittee member Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) last month introduced a bill that would “codify” Prosper Africa and help provide businesses with an “alternative” to China’s investments. The proposal would involve “a whole-of-government strategy, implementation plan, and robust monitoring and evaluation of ongoing activities,” among other things, according to a statement from House Foreign Affairs Republicans.

“The establishment of the Prosper Africa Initiative in 2019 was an important step, but much more is needed to ensure the U.S. is showing up, competing for these business opportunities, and providing an alternative to China’s [Belt and Road Initiative],” McCaul said in the statement.

Whitaker added in an email that she does not expect the Biden administration to restart talks toward a free trade agreement with Kenya that were launched during the Trump administration. However, she added, “If there is any [sub-Saharan African] country and leader that merit U.S. consideration of a bilateral FTA, it’s Kenya under the effective leadership of President Uhuru Kenyatta.”

Kenya, she wrote, “is to Africa what Ohio is to the U.S. -- a multifaceted diverse economy with important regional connectivity.”

Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Sarah Bianchi last week said the U.S. would share news on the bilateral trade relationship with Kenya in the “coming weeks.”

Whitaker said the administration likely will offer a “strong symbolic signal of support” -- perhaps “as a consolation for not moving ahead with a bilateral FTA.”

In her view, FTA negotiations would be difficult to conclude for several “very practical reasons,” including possible conflicts with Kenya’s commitments to ongoing integration efforts on the continent.

She added that she would support a U.S.-Kenya FTA if it could be “reconciled” with those commitments. “[B]ut I don’t see a path to do that,” she wrote in the email. -- Margaret Spiegelman (

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