US-Africa Summit Will Not Solve Africa’s Problems

As the U.S. President Barack Obama prepares to meet 50 African leaders on Wednesday, August 6, it is worth reflecting on the factors behind the recent progress occurring in countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. As we write in our new paper,

The real gross domestic product [in Sub-Saharan Africa] rose at an average annual rate of 4.9 percent between 2000 and 2008 — twice as fast as that in the 1990s. […] As a result, between 1990 and 2010, the share of Africans living at $1.25 per day or less fell from 56 percent to 48 percent, while the continent’s population almost doubled in size. If the current trends continue, Africa’s poverty rate will fall to 24 percent by 2030.4 Since 1990 the per-capita caloric intake in Africa increased from 2,150 kcal to 2,430 kcal in 2013.5 Between 1990 and 2012, the proportion of the population of African countries with access to clean drinking water increased from 48 percent to 64 percent.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa is also becoming more democratic and better governed, a large gap between the quality of its institutions and those in the West persists. The continent remains, for example, economically unfree and heavily protectionist, not just vis-à-vis the outside world but also within the continent. For 25 African countries, the tariff costs of exporting or importing manufactured goods are higher within Africa than with the rest of world.

While international summits cannot not solve Africa’s internal problems, our paper argues that the upcoming meeting is a good opportunity for the U.S. administration to eliminate the existing trade barriers facing African exporters – regardless of whether they come in the form of explicit tariff barriers or implicit ones, such as agricultural subsidies:

[T]he elimination of the existing barriers to trade should be at the forefront of the efforts to help. Such barriers include tariffs, particularly on agricultural exports, which make it difficult for African economies to fully exploit their comparative advantage. As Brookings Institution researchers Emmanuel Asmah and Brandon Routman note, the structure of the tariff protection in the United States — but also in the European Union — is a significant part of the problem. The tariffs imposed up to a certain amount of imports may be low, yet the tariffs imposed for imports above the permitted quota might be very steep, in some cases up to 350 percent. Furthermore, agricultural subsidies in rich countries cause surplus production, which is often dumped on the world markets, depressing prices and undermining the livelihood of farmers in poor countries.