President Obama on Tuesday urged American businesses to build stronger ties with the emerging markets of Africa, suggesting that trade even with some troubled African nations might be in the best interests of both sides.
“It is the youngest and fastest-growing continent,” Obama told a crowd of U.S. and African business leaders, praising the virtues of vibrant markets offering opportunities “not just for aid, but for trade.”
Questioned by an entrepreneur from Zimbabwe, Obama said his government would look for ways to promote trade with the country despite the U.S. sanctions targeting dozens of Zimbabwean people and groups accused of undermining democratic institutions there.
“We’ll see if there are ways we can work with you, consistent with the strong message we send about good governance in Zimbabwe,” Obama said.
The remarks came as part of Obama’s welcome to 51 African leaders, gathered for a summit session that doubled as a matchmaking opportunity for American and African businesspeople.
But even as Obama was trying to sell the idea of trade with Africa, his administration was forced to deal with a serious bit of counter-messaging about the outbreak in three African countries of the Ebola virus – the very kind of threat that deters investment on a continent home to more than a billion people.
Some of the president’s top advisors have been deployed for days now to make sure the virus doesn’t spread to the U.S., with his top domestic security advisor providing updates on a regular basis.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spent a significant part of his Tuesday briefing trying to assure Americans that there is no risk of the virus spreading to the U.S.
As they were putting together the summit over the last few months, administration officials were hoping to help polish a shiny new story of Africa for would-be investors.
“So often the immediate thought of many Americans, when they consider U.S. policy toward Africa, turns to issues of poverty and disease and conflict, corruption,” Earnest said. “The truth is there is significant opportunity that exists in Africa.”
Though the Ebola virus is taking up much of the bandwidth at the White House, some analysts are asking why it hasn’t become a bigger part of the conversation. The global community has "no strategic plan" for handling a real epidemic if it spreads to an urban area, some analysts say.
It's "deplorable" that the summit has not formally addressed the subject, said John Campbell, senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Though it might have been hard to add agenda items on such short notice, he said, the Ebola crisis could have been incorporated into the overall theme of economic development.
"I would point out that Ebola is already having an impact on the economies of the countries that are affected," Campbell said, noting a study finding that Sierra Leone's growth rate has fallen 1% since the outbreak began in March. "Ebola is a disease but it's a disease with enormous economic and, ultimately, political consequences.
"We're talking about Ebola right now, but there are plenty of other diseases that in fact can turn into pandemics pretty quickly."
The virus may come to dominate conversations on the sidelines of the summit, but it’s hard to tell by how much.
Obama gave his speech Tuesday, but other than that, his conversations with leaders were casual ones at social functions.
On Tuesday night, the White House was to host a formal dinner for all 51 leaders. Obama was planning to greet them in a long receiving line and to chat with them then, aides said.
In public, the conversations were polite. Though his administration has raised serious concerns about human rights and governance issues in several African nations, Obama on Tuesday framed the topic in the form of tips for getting ahead in business.
“Capital is one thing,” he said. “Rule of law, regulatory reform, good governance – those things matter even more.”
As for violence in the region, he said, “it’s very hard to attract business investment in the midst of conflict.”
The summit continues Wednesday with more working sessions and, at day’s end, a news conference.
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