Monday, August 17, 2009

The Shadow of AGOA Pessimism

Shortly after what had seemed to be a positive AGOA Forum in Nairobi, reports are surfacing that the view of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) held by participants was not as hopeful as it seemed. In fact, a sort of AGOA pessimism seems to be settling in that could endanger efforts to fully realize this U.S.-Africa trade process.

African government officials and private sector representatives reportedly were bitterly disappointed that the U.S. government would not agree to the requests to commit to extending AGOA beyond 2015 or expand the product lines allowed duty free, quota free treatment. U.S. officials made the point that only about 50 of more than 6,400 product lines are now being taken advantage of by African exporters and that there are six years left under the current extension of AGOA. The point American government and private sector representatives often made in Nairobi was the Africans could do better to use what they currently have rather than asking for more.

The point is well taken, but one hopes the Americans heard the African response. For example, Namibians were lamenting the difficulty they have had for the past several years in getting their beef and grapes approved for export to the United States. There are cumbersome procedures that prevent African agricultural and farm products from reaching America despite their being imported into Europe. It is certainly frustrating to hear so much about American intentions to help Africans trade their way into prosperity and then find so many non-tariff barriers making a mockery of that promise.

That is not to say that Africans bear no blame for this situation. Infrastructure on the continent has for too long been ignored. It is not the responsibility of Americans or Europeans or Chinese to build and maintain roads or refurbish airports and seaports. While it is true that sanitary/phyto-sanitary regulations are not being properly transmitted to African producers, it is also true that African governments and private sectors could do more to find out the details on their own. These details are not secret, after all. Sometimes one has to seek out and pay for the knowledge you need.

Since the passage of AGOA, African exports to the United States have increased by more than tenfold. AGOA has fundamentally changed the nature of the U.S.-African economic relationship. However, both sides must do more to fully realize the still largely-untapped benefits of AGOA. This is a job for both parties to undertake, but that’s what genuine partnership calls for.

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