Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Managing Director of the World Bank, has presented a dynamic plan whereby the African Diaspora can buy into bonds that can accelerate the continent’s development. She cites, for example, the fact that 50% of the world’s arable land is in Africa, but African farmers lose up to half their produce due to poor roads and lack of storage. The so-called “Diaspora bonds” would be sold by governments, private companies and public-private partnerships to raise funds to correct this problem and others limiting African development, but under her plan, these bonds would be sold only to native-born Africans living abroad.
What’s wrong with this picture?
When the African Union sponsored a conference on the African Diaspora in Washington in December 2002, the conflict over how many African viewed the Diaspora and how the descendants of Africa saw the Diaspora was highlighted. Until then, when the AU spoke of its Diaspora, they meant only those born on the continent who live elsewhere. However, as members of the traditional African Diaspora – those whose ancestors were kidnapped into slavery long ago – made clear during that conference, we are a part of that Diaspora too. When the AU soon thereafter declared the African Diaspora to be the continent’s sixth region, many of us thought this conflict had ended. Apparently, we were wrong.
Many native-born Africans may say they believe the traditional Diaspora is part of the global African Diaspora, but their actions and sometimes their words – such as Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s – belie their continued belief that only native-born Africans really qualify.
On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, members of the traditional Diaspora continue to reach out to our brothers and sisters in and from Africa. This is increasingly due to the African Ancestry DNA tests that link people like myself to Africa (in my case Cameroon), but our links to Africa much predate such scientific evidence. It dates back to the 1800s when freed slaves and their children returned to Africa. The links have included Diaspora missions to provide health and education assistance and Pan African conferences to outline terms of engagement. It included such projects as Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. More recently, it included Reverend Leon H. Sullivan’s summits in Africa. Today, it includes Congressman Bobby Rush’s African Investment and Diaspora Act (H.R. 656).
H.R. 656 recognizes and offers to build on the potential of Diaspora investment in Africa. Investments on the continent have averaged nearly 30% annually over the past several years, according to a United Nations Conference on Trade and Development study. For Diaspora and other American investors, whose investment portfolios have taken a beating in the bursting of the various tech and housing bubbles in the past decade or so, investment in African companies offers a potentially more profitable means of growing our money. While investment in Diaspora bonds could be one way of making such investments, H.R. 656 is not limited to any one vehicle for investment.
Congressman Rush’s bill calls for the appointment of a Special Representative for United States-Africa Trade, Development and Diaspora Affairs; directs the establishment within the Department of State of the Office of United States-Africa Trade, Development and Diaspora Affairs headed by that Special Representative, and mandates the establishment of five regional centers of that office to conduct public outreach, education and liaison.
Since 1996, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has sought to encourage both U.S.-Africa trade and American investment in Africa. To date, much of the trade still involves the extractive sectors, although non-extractive trade admittedly has grown as well. But the American investment in Africa still focuses on the extractive industries, and without the encouragement offered by vehicles such as H.R. 656, it may remain focused on those industries.
As Congressman Rush points out in his bill, the combined consumer spending of Africa is projected to reach US$1.4 trillion over the next decade. Much of the rest of the world – from China to India to Brazil to Turkey – sees the potential of African economies. Unfortunately, Americans still haven’t completely caught on to the financial rewards Africa already delivers to its investors. When you factor in the anticipated US$1.24 trillion in consumer spending by African Americans alone by 2013, you have an economic explosion waiting to be experienced.
H.R. 656 is an example of the interest and willingness of African Americans to engage with the rest of the African Diaspora and Africa in the coming years. More of us realize our common heritage and destiny every day. First- and second-generation Africans in the Diaspora increasingly work collaboratively with us. Relationships between members of the African Diaspora and Africans have been built over more than a century and continue today. What we need to know is: does official Africa accept us as member of the family?