Obama has indicated that he will use his trip to highlight U.S. development programs in Africa. But since the president has established no significant new Africa-related programs, he will inevitably be highlighting the work of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama has also indicated he will highlight U.S. engagement on food security, terrorism, youth leadership, and energy. Unfortunately, any new initiatives in these areas are likely to be relatively small in scale and guided by the outdated view of Africa as a "hopeless" continent looking for handouts.
Obama's visit to Africa will also focus in part on promoting U.S. trade and private investment in the region. However, U.S. engagement in these areas has been limited to date, focused primarily on programs that target individual countries or on smaller, ill-defined initiatives such as the Commerce Department's "Doing Business in Africa" campaign or USAID's muddled efforts to create trade hubs in Africa. Such programs also do not sufficiently promote regional integration, which is critical to Africa's economic growth and transformation. American private-sector investment -- paired with public-sector support -- particularly in infrastructure, could go a long way in supporting Africa's growth and industrialization, and to being mutually beneficial for trade and investment. Obama has an opportunity with this trip to announce and follow through on initiatives in this area. If he does so, he will leave behind an important legacy on the continent.
For instance, a comprehensive African infrastructure and energy development initiative that increases funding as well as engagement by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) would show that Obama is serious about development. Such an initiative could also work on expanding and scaling the work of the U.S. Export-Import Bank -- specifically its Short-Term Africa Initiative (STAI) -- with the goal of finding ways to increase financing for African infrastructure-related transactions. It's worth noting that this would be mutually beneficial, since the U.S. Export-Import Bank actually makes money from this type of lending.
OPIC, MCC, and the Export-Import Bank have done more work and dedicated more funds to Africa projects in recent years than ever before, but the United States still doesn't measure up when compared with Africa's other global partners. To put things into perspective, Ghanaians have great memories of Obama's visit to their country in his first term, but they are even more excited about the Bui Dam that the Chinese are building to increase Ghana's power supply. This investment will have a positive impact on Ghanaians' quality of life, strengthen their productivity, and make the country's private sector more competitive. The Bui Dam is a real, substantive project. When Chinese leaders visit Africa, they come with very specific development initiatives and return home with hundreds of bilateral agreements, many of which involve investment by Chinese companies.
Obama will almost certainly return home empty-handed. So, what will he accomplish beyond symbolism? Probably not much. The president's advisors will spin the trip as proof that Obama hasn't ignored Africa and that the region is an important U.S. partner. And while the latter bit might be true, most Africans don't see it that way.