African economies finally get some respect

President Barack Obama (R), French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C), and Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika (L) pose after a working session with African outreach leaders during the G8 summit in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, June 25, 2010.

After being long overlooked, African economies are starting to get some attention. Leaders from four African countries meet with President Obama today. Meanwhile, back in Africa this week, officials from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have been working to forge new economic bonds.

The group meeting in Washington represents Malawi, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says these countries aren’t economic heavyweights, but they stand out for their strides in good governance.

“Over time, that is going to improve the business climate. And that, in turn, is likely to lead to a growth in the economic relationship,” says Campbell. “American economic interest in Africa is growing, albeit from a relatively low base. But it’s certainly growing. And there’s certainly a lot of opportunity there. The opportunity tends to be best in those countries which are characterized by better and improving governance.”

For the most part, the U.S. looks to Africa for oil and commodities.

China wants those things too. But Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, says the focus is shifting. China is also investing in other projects.

“It’s also investing quite a bit in manufacturing. It’s also investing in construction. So one of the good things about Chinese engagement with Africa has been infrastructure development,” says Kimenyi.

He says America’s importance in Africa has diminished in recent years.

“This is a big mistake on the side of United States, because Africa has changed. It has a lot of new opportunities. The business climate has improved,” says Kimenyi.

He says that competition from both China and the U.S. would benefit Africa. Competition could force business and mineral rights contracts to be more transparent. That could result in less corruption, and more benefits for the average African.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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