Author: Judd Devermont
Affiliated organization: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: December, 2020
The Hometown Argument
The national security pitch about why Africa matters to the United States tends to fall on deaf ears.
Its recurrent themes—terrorism, migration, infectious diseases, and humanitarian crises—fail to resonate with most Americans. Only 1 percent of respondents believed Africa was the most important region for U.S. national security according to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in January 2020. Instead of just preaching to beltway insiders, U.S. policymakers need to craft a hometown argument about Africa’s significance. They have to showcase how the continent enriches Americans’ daily lives, along with the vibrant economic, political, social, and cultural ties that bind U.S. cities and Africa together.
It’s The Economy
Africa is an important investment destination for many leading U.S. industries and Fortune 500 companies, contributing to U.S. jobs and increasing the revenue base for several cities. There is real enthusiasm toward increasing two-way trade and investment. In 2015, Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield led a trade and development mission to South Africa and Tanzania, extolling South Africa as a “powerhouse on the continent” and as an emerging market with broad interests from Alabama exporters.
Many U.S. companies see Africa as a key part of their global portfolio. Exxon-Mobil, headquartered in Dallas, has a diverse portfolio in Africa, including investments in Nigeria and Angola, as well as a stake in Mozambique’s massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) project. For Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, Africa comprised 20 percent of sales by volume for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa division in 2018.
Ties to Africa are generating jobs for Americans. Boeing, which is one of the largest employers in Seattle and St. Louis, represents nearly 70 percent of the airplane market currently in service across the continent. In Wichita, known as the flight capital of the world, Bombardier and Textron sell aircraft and aviation services to customers in sub-Saharan Africa.
A Rising Political Tide
Several U.S. municipal, state, and national politicians are at the forefront of U.S.-Africa policy, shaping bilateral ties on behalf of their constituents.
Senator James Risch of Idaho, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a leading voice for democracy and human rights in Cameroon, The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall of New Mexico have weighed in on China’s role in Africa and conservation and climate change in Kenya and Botswana.
Many U.S. companies see Africa as a key part of their global portfolio. Exxon-Mobil, headquartered in Dallas, has a diverse portfolio in Africa, including investments in Nigeria and Angola, as well as a stake in Mozambique’s massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) project
In recent years, there have been more first- and second-generation members of the African diaspora in politics and government service, inspiring and giving voice to their communities. Ilhan Omar’s 2019 election to be the first Somali American in Congress elicited celebrations from thousands of Somalis in Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs. In 2020, two Liberian Americans, Naquetta Ricks and Nathan Biah, won seats in the House of Representatives in Colorado and Rhode Island, respectively. Nigerian-American Esther Agbaje clinched a win in Minnesota’s House of Representatives, also representing parts of Minneapolis.
Africa’s vibrant diaspora communities enrich many cities’ cultural and intellectual lives.
In Boise, nearly a thousand refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East journey to Idaho every year to make a new life. Many Boise residents see refugees as being vital for reviving the city’s economy. Similarly, in 2019 the Columbus Dispatch affirmed that “people from throughout Africa help make up Ohio’s identity.” In 2013, sociologist Joseph Scott and historian Solomon Getahun published Little Ethiopia of the Pacific Northwest, detailing how the Ethiopian community has adapted, struggled, and thrived in Seattle.
Many U.S. cities have become a cherished home for diaspora communities. In Providence, the city’s prominent Cape Verdean community started to arrive in the mid-1800s through New England’s whaling industry. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are 99,000 African diaspora members in Dallas, 94,000 in Minneapolis, 43,000 in Columbus, 15,000 in Detriot, and 5,000 in Durham.
Once diaspora communities are established in the United States, they often become rich focal points for African festivals, music, food, and art in major metropolitan areas throughout the country.
Diaspora members serve as prominent academics, medical professionals, religious leaders, and entrepreneurs all across the United States.
A standout feature in Africa’s relations with U.S. cities is the continent’s prominence in academia. Most major universities have African studies programs or centers for the study of Africa and its diaspora
According to a Pew Center report in 2018, African immigrants tend to be more educated than native-born Americans. Sixty-nine percent of sub-Saharan African immigrants in the United States have some college education, compared to 63 percent of native-born Americans.
A standout feature in Africa’s relations with U.S. cities is the continent’s prominence in academia. Most major universities have African studies programs or centers for the study of Africa and its diaspora.
The University of Washington has a Horn of Africa Initiative to address the perceived gap in expertise and courses in most U.S. education institutions. Ohio State University’s Center for African Studies hosts a Model African Union to “mobilize and engage Ohio State students” on African affairs.
U.S. diplomats can increase the number of reverse trade missions and facilitate African leader visits to promote investment in Africa and spur new deals. But it is just as important that senior U.S. officials return the favor when traveling to African countries. The standard trip to the continent is as mundane as African leaders’ current excursions to the United States. U.S. senior officials can work to change this with requests ranging from a visit to one of the continent’s more than 400 tech hubs or by attending an NBA Africa basketball league game.
Refine the Narrative
It is imperative to continue to hone a hometown argument about why Africa matters to U.S. cities and to work to engage U.S. communities beyond the beltway. This can be accomplished by a variety of simple but effective tactics, including:
- Hosting townhalls;
- Working with U.S. creative industries, which produced blockbusters such as Black Panther and Beyoncé’s Lion King soundtrack; and
- Teaming up with U.S. and African media to ensure wider coverage of this important relationship. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Information Service made short films detailing a leader’s trip to the United States.
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