Monday, May 17, 2010

Heroes of the AGOA Struggles

At last week’s celebration of the 10th anniversary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), there were well-deserved kudos for former House Ways and Means Committee Chairmen Charles Rangel and William Thomas. They both successfully used their positions over the years to support U.S.-Africa trade. Congressman Phillip Crane, as head of the committee’s Subcommittee on Trade as well as his staff, helped improve the legislation. At the time the original AGOA was being considered, there hadn’t been major trade legislation for several years, but these gentlemen were determined to make AGOA reality. Still, there were others who should be considered heroes for the role they played in putting U.S.-Africa trade on the front-burner of American foreign policy.

Some object to calling Congressman Jim McDermott the father of AGOA, but without him, there would be no AGOA bill. If the leaders of the Ways and Means Committee correctly saw the benefit of McDermott’s legislation, they did not invent it, though they did help to refine it. McDermott, a psychiatrist, had an interest in Africa, but admittedly little expertise. Nevertheless, when his chief of staff, Mike Williams, presented the case that Africa was being short-changed in terms of U.S. trade policy, McDermott quickly saw the benefit of the legislation Williams wrote. The mark of a politician who truly believes in the legislation he introduces is that he can put his own ego on the side so that it can succeed. On the day his bill was being debated and voted on, McDermott stood at the back of the room so as not to make himself the issue so his bill could pass, and it did.

The floor leader of the McDermott bill was Congressman Ed Royce. Once the concept was presented to him in the mid-1990s, he latched onto it and became AGOA’s biggest and most active supporter. It was Royce who convinced then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to support AGOA, and the Speaker went to the well of the House chamber to speak on behalf of the legislation, which is an unusual move by the leader of the House. Royce not only convinced Republicans and Democrats in the House to support AGOA, but he also went to the Senate to successfully work the bill there. Royce staffers Tom Sheehy and I worked on enhancing the policy language and worked with other staff to overcome obstacles to the bill’s passage.

Congressman Donald Payne is often lauded for supporting AGOA, but I’m not sure if that many people realize the critical role he played during the initial vote on AGOA. Witnesses that day saw the debate on AGOA take a nasty, partisan turn at one point as some Democrats, who had not yet accepted the benefits of trade and suspected any legislation supported by Republican leaders, began to question the wisdom of the bill. As fragile bipartisan support began to fray, Congressman Payne quietly spoke to members on his side of the aisle to calm their concerns. Had he not been able to stop the political hemorrhaging at that time, there may not have been an AGOA because political polarization would have set in.

I still recall the work former Congressman William Jefferson did to promote U.S.-Africa trade under AGOA. When he was indicted for bribery and later convicted, many of us lamented the loss of such an energetic supporter of trade and entrepreneurial activity. It is not possible for him to appear at any celebration. Even were he free to do so, his legal problems make it politically incorrect to mention him, but he played a major role in the legislative success of AGOA, and we should remember his efforts in that regard.

Rosa Whitaker has become a controversial figure in the AGOA story, but you have to ask why. When the position of Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa was made a provision in the original AGOA, her patron, Congressman Rangel, helped her assume that role even before the bill itself was passed. If she had taken the position merely to pad her resume, you could understand the criticism, but she defined the position for all who would follow her and advanced U.S.-Africa trade through her relentless efforts. She subsequently sponsored a vibrant private sector-civil society coalition in support of AGOA.

The late David Miller of the Corporate Council on Africa led reluctant corporate leaders to support AGOA and put his organization’s prestige and resources behind seeing AGOA and its enhancements passed by Congress. The support of the corporate community involved in business in Africa was vital to building support in Congress. Since becoming CCA’s president, Steve Hayes has continued his organization’s support despite his criticisms of AGOA’s implementation. CCA members such as Tony Carroll of Manchester Trade have devoted their time to helping both the private sector and civil society advance AGOA and its goals.

Civil society leaders such as Mel Foote of the Constituency for Africa, Fred Oladeinde of the Foundation for Democracy in Africa and the late Leonard Robinson of the Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa were all leaders within the group of organizations who came to believe that AGOA offered significant benefits to small and medium entrepreneurs in Africa and America. The role civil society played was indisputably critical in gaining passage of the original AGOA bill and subsequent enhancements.

The late Ray Almeida consistently promoted the voice of Africans in U.S. trade policy deliberations at Bread for the World and the African Development Foundation. AGOA was created as a helping hand to Africa, and while the African diplomatic corps did weigh in on what would make AGOA Effective from the standpoint of government, Ray represented the smallholders whose livelihoods depended on increased trade.

It has been my honor to collaborate with these supporters of AGOA. Working together, we have seen Congress take unprecedented steps to advance U.S.-Africa trade and witnessed African businesses create jobs and build wealth for themselves and their communities. AGOA will only work better if we continue our cooperation across sector and political affiliation lines.


  1. Thank you so much for this well-done article. Congressman Payne is my congressman. I usually find something wrong with politicians, but I've never taken issue with Payen. I think he's great. Thanks for confirming my feeling about him. I'm always looking for news on my reps (both good and bad). Thanks again. Great column.

  2. BANJUL: Gambia’s AGOA Gamble
    Since 2008, The Gambia has been part of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a US government initiative that aims to incentivize the adoption of open economies and freer markets in African countries, with a focus on the apparel industry. But if so, why is the small West African country still struggling?