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President Barack Obama takes the stage to deliver remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum held at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel during the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama Pushes Africa Investment as US Corporations 'Drool' over Resources

Critics warn Obama's multibillion dollar push to open Africa for U.S. business will further dispossess and impoverish people across the continent.

Sarah Lazare

At a Washington, DC gathering of African state leaders and U.S. corporations, President Obama on Tuesday unveiled a multi-billion dollar drive to promote U.S. business investments in Africa. While the President said the plan will unleash "the next era of African growth," experts warn it amounts to more of the same extractive policies that have already impoverished and dispossessed people across the continent.

"All you have to do is look who has a seat at the table to understand what is happening," said Emira Woods, expert on U.S. foreign policy in Africa and social impact director at ThoughtWorks, a technology firm committed to social and economic justice, in an interview with Common Dreams. "We're talking African leaders, some with bad human rights records, and American CEOs."

"Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver and it’s an ugly scramble for oil, minerals, and markets for U.S. goods. Everyone wants a piece of Africa: drooling outsiders, corrupt insiders, cynical middle men."
—John Feffer, Foreign Policy in Focus

Obama's much-touted "Africa Summit"—which started Monday and ends Wednesday—is co-sponsored by the U.S. Commerce Department and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's foundation, and was attended by chief executives of General Electric, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, IBM, and other multinational corporations.

Obama took the opportunity to announce $7 billion in what the White House describes as "new financing to promote U.S. exports to and investments in Africa." Obama also championed $14 billion in new investments by U.S. corporations in Africa, which includes $5 billion from Coca-Cola for manufacturing equipment. This is in addition to another $12 billion in new commitments for Obama's Power Africa initiative, which will give multinational corporations—including GE—billions of dollars in energy deals to "double the number of people with access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa." The total bill comes to $33 billion for "supporting economic growth across Africa and tens of thousands of U.S. jobs," according to the White House.

"We've got to do better, much better," said Obama. "I want Africans buying more American products and I want Americans buying more African products."

General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt put the interest of U.S. corporations more bluntly at a discussion moderated by former U.S. President Bill Clinton on Tuesday. “We kind of gave Africa to the Europeans first and to the Chinese later, but today it’s wide open for us," he said, according to the Washington Post.

“I’m excited about Africa,” Wal-Mart chief executive Doug McMillon said at the same discussion. “For us, it’s a long-term proposition. We invested $2.6 billion in 2011, and that’s just the beginning.”

But that is just what critics are worried about.

"If there is business as usual, we will continue to have a situation where people on whose land resources lie will be pushed further and further to the brink, left without health care, housing, education, or any means of benefiting."
—Emira Woods, ThoughtWorks
"Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver and it’s an ugly scramble for oil, minerals, and markets for U.S. goods," writes John Feffer for Foreign Policy in Focus on Wednesday. "Everyone wants a piece of Africa: drooling outsiders, corrupt insiders, cynical middle men."

"What we are seeing are that the rules of the game have long been stacked in the favor of one percent: multinational corporations and CEOs and the local elites who do their bidding," said Woods. "If there is business as usual, we will continue to have a situation where people on whose land resources lie will be pushed further and further to the brink, left without health care, housing, education, or any means of benefiting."

In an analysis published last year, the World Bank found that Africa's economic growth and foreign investment over the past decade have failed to benefit a majority of people living on the continent, and deep poverty and inequality are “unacceptably high and the pace of reduction unacceptably slow.” The report predicts, "Almost one out of every two Africans lives in extreme poverty today," and by the year 2030, "a vast majority of the world's poor will be located in Africa."

Woods warned that that drive for investment from oil and gas extraction industries is especially dangerous for a continent that is already at the "epicenter of climate catastrophe." According to Woods, "Power Africa is very focused on accessing new sources of oil that have been discovered in and around the African continent without recognizing the long-term implications of continuing on a path of fossil fuels." 

Woods emphasized that the push for U.S. investments, represented at the summit, takes place alongside the expansion of the U.S. military's AFRICOM, as well as weapons, across the country, furthering the destabilization and militarization of numerous communities. "Economic interests are bolstered by military power to reinforce the opportunity to fully extract resources," said Woods.

"What is needed now is a change to the status quo."


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