In early August, more than 50 African heads of state will convene in Washington, D.C., for the first ever United States–Africa Leaders Summit. The summit agenda will focus on trade, investment, security, and democratic development. But a key ingredient towards achieving these goals is missing: civil society.
If U.S. and African leaders are serious about developing meaningful ways to increase trade and investment, and deliver peace and security in Africa, they must focus on good governance and the fundamental role civil society plays in these efforts across the continent.
The Open Society Foundations are longtime supporters of civil society in Africa and spearheaded many initiatives to promote transparency and accountability in Africa, especially when it comes to natural resource governance. We are working closely with the Obama Administration to focus on these issues at the summit.
It would be a profound mistake to exclude civil society representatives and issues from the summit. Not only would it contradict the stated position of the U.S. and African governments on good governance, economic freedom, and human rights, but it also will hinder longer term success. Effectively managing public wealth and safeguarding opportunities for all people requires transparent, inclusive, and well-performing institutions as well as a vibrant civil society.
This is particularly true when natural resources are extracted and converted into public wealth. Natural resource revenue streams, marked by their opacity, are central to many of Africa’s economies and help fund important social and economic programs. Inclusive resource-driven economic growth goes hand-in-hand with strengthening democracies and institutions. Yet, too frequently economic growth fails to lead to widespread opportunity and shared prosperity.
There are many efforts on which the summit can build. Numerous African countries have ratified and domesticated regional governance and anticorruption mechanisms, including the African Mining Vision (AMV), the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, and the African Peer Review Mechanism. U.S. policy towards Africa similarly includes numerous references to democracy, governance, and human rights, and President Obama has specifically highlighted the importance of a robust and independent civil society in improving governance.
Despite this platform, commitments alone do not lead to better governance; civil society must be free to act as both partner and watchdog. A growing consensus recognizes that a free and robust civil society supports stronger participation and better governance. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit does not need to shy away from the governance issues that secure meaningful and shared development.
In the lead-up to the summit, some reports have suggested that because previous Africa summits—with China, Japan, and the EU—did not prioritize good governance and civil society participation, neither should the U.S.-Africa summit. Such a view fundamentally misrepresents opportunities posed by the summit. In focusing on trade and investment, the summit represents an opportunity to highlight the range of governance efforts African governments have already developed to help frame U.S.-Africa engagement for the future.
Civil society organizations in Africa and the U.S. have seized on this opportunity and are speaking up to support an inclusive U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. This campaign builds off the recommendations of diverse civil society groups on three critical themes for Africa’s development: rule of law, transparency and accountability, and discrimination.
If U.S. and African governments are serious about using the summit to foster meaningful trade and development, civil society must be afforded a seat at the table and these themes must be on the agenda.