US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s three-country trip to Africa – the vanguard of another diplomatic strike by the Biden administration – aims to show the continent that the United States is a true partner, a long-term partner.
But after decades of losing ground to China and the tumult of the Donald Trump years, when the former president threatened to cut aid and scale back military support, it’s a hard sell.
As Africa grapples with economic headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and Washington’s own monetary policy in particular, Africans are asking for evidence that the United States will stay on track this time.
Yellen has so far made an effort to give guarantees.
“I honestly don’t know how I can give any guarantees,” she told Reuters in an interview en route from Senegal to Zambia. But both Republicans and Democrats support longstanding initiatives, including on health and commerce, she said.
Yellen’s trip kicks off a year of high-level visits to the US, including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Trade Representative Katherine Tai and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.
Washington hosted African leaders from 49 countries and the African Union at a summit in December, where Biden said the United States was “all in” on Africa’s future and planned to pledge $55 billion over the next three years.
African officials have generally welcomed the renewed involvement of the United States. But the timing, two years into Biden’s four-year term, is seen by many as “late and somewhat half-hearted,” said Chris Ogunmodede, a Nigerian researcher and associate editor of World Politics Review.
“There are certainly fears that Biden will not follow through, or that he could lose and be replaced by a hostile Republican administration,” he said.
CHINA, DEBT AND RATE RISES
While the United States touts its long-standing ties with Africa and a renewed commitment to ramping up trade and investment, it is playing catch-up with China and facing a growing challenge from Russia.
China’s trade with Africa is about four times that of the United States, and Beijing has also become a major creditor, offering cheaper loans than Western lenders.
US officials – Democrats and Republicans alike – have criticized China’s loans as lacking in transparency and predatory.
In Senegal, Yellen warned Africa against “glossy deals that may be opaque and ultimately do not benefit the people” and accused China of dragging along a critical debt restructuring in Zambia.
But US fiscal policy creates its own hindrance.
African countries have become collateral victims of this year’s rate hikes by the US Federal Reserve, designed to curb domestic inflation.
“Tight financial conditions and the appreciation of the US dollar have had serious consequences for most African economies,” the African Development Bank (AfDB) wrote in a report last week.
According to the World Bank, the cost of debt service is expected to reach $25 billion next year, up from $21.4 billion in 2022. In local currencies, it has risen even faster, increasing the risk of indebtedness, according to the AfDB.
African countries are also finding it more difficult to access capital markets to meet their fiscal needs and refinance maturing debt.
The United States, meanwhile, has largely failed to provide viable alternatives to cheap Chinese credit, officials said.
“China is an important partner,” Nicolas Kazadi, finance minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, told Reuters. “It has been clearly shown that it is not easy to mobilize US investors.”
A senior US Treasury Department official said the United States has long been involved in Africa, funding anti-HIV work and working on other health issues. “We don’t talk about it often. It’s not called bridges or highways…but if you just think about the number of lives saved – an estimated 25 million lives saved with our involvement in (AIDS relief) – that’s real.”
African countries have largely rejected US pressure to take sides in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with some citing colonial-era Moscow’s support for their liberation movements.
Russia has blocked Ukrainian grain exports, fueling food inflation and exacerbating one of the worst food crises in Africa’s history, US officials note.
Speaking in Senegal on Friday, Yellen said the war was hurting the continent’s economy and that a Group of Seven-led price cap on Russian crude oil and refined products could save African countries $6 billion annually.
On Monday, however, South Africa hosted a visit from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and defended its decision to hold joint naval exercises with Russia and China off the east coast next month – a day before Yellen was due to arrive.
“All countries are conducting military exercises with friends around the world,” South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, alongside Lavrov, told reporters.
Washington, Beijing and Moscow are all seeking out African nations with their own interests in mind, say foreign policy experts including Ebrahim Rasool, a former South African ambassador to the United States. African leaders, hoping for greater representation in bodies like the G20 and the UN Security Council, can play that game too.
“The US sometimes has good intentions and meetings, but not always the follow-up,” Rasool said, adding that Russia and China are sometimes needed to push the US into action.
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