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U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit: Let's Ensure It's on the Positive Side of History

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If you are an Africa-hand, activist or development partner, you are either directly or indirectly involved with the upcoming Washington, D.C. August 4-6, 2014, U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit. Fundamentally, the event is incredibly historic as it will be the first time that a sitting U.S. president has invited all the leaders of the Africa Region to a single event (with the exceptions of Zimbabwe, Central Africa Republic, Eritrea, and Western Sahara), to discuss key continent issues and the macro U.S.-Africa relationship. The four themes for the summit are: Investing in Africa's Future; Peace and Regional Stability, and Governing for the Next Generation.

There is some griping, of course, about aspects of the summit, but overall the event is a step in the right direction for the United States, even if some parts of the program rankles Africa-hands and activists on both sides of the Atlantic and bothers many African Leaders. They are all pondering the single most asked question: Why are there no individual heads-of-state (HOS) meetings with the 50 leaders attending? China, France, Japan, India all have gotten this right - holding one-on-one meetings lasting a few minutes. So the U.S. approach to not doing this does bother many. But, this article is not necessarily arguing for individual meetings.

However, here is a new thought or one possibly considered but dismissed: How could having five sub-regional meetings - short presidential sessions with leaders of West, Central, East, South, and North Africa - be too much for us to do? This doesn't seem to be an excessive time requirement (this is the argument against one-on-ones). But, considering the cost, distance, respect-balance ratios at stake as these leaders travel to the U.S. with probably no less than 10 senior government officials, we should be able to manage five meetings. Moreover, the U.S. sound policy direction to encourage regional integration and cooperation on the very issues the summit will address would be advanced by having regional discussions with the President of the United States.

Some factoids why this misstep could not only be strategically wrong for the U.S., but further play into the notion by some that the U.S. approach is not on par with China and others are: Africa's population is reportedly 1.5 billion, and is on course to reach a population of 2.4 billion people by 2050; and, its average 2.4 percent growth rate could remain constant for decades. Africa is the third-most populated region and will become the largest - with most facing poverty unless we all do some additional things correctly now.

Arguing that demographics is a U.S. strategic issue as we look forward in the 21st Century for new partners on policy, business, or counterterrorism - Africa is key to the United States. Its large demographics make it more so. The summit themes are great, the U.S. interest is historic, but we may need to show something else based more on Africa's perception (not ours) of appropriateness. Thus, the suggestion being made here is to consider or re-consider the sub-regional meeting approach - further concretizing, and synergizing the U.S. stated desire to have a positive U.S.-Africa relationship. Hence calling the summit historic should not be hyperbole!

However positively the summit is planned, the fact that there are no HOS meetings, even at the sub-regional level, might be what is remembered most, and that would be a shame. Especially since the themes are on target, and various events like the recent FEEEDS-Gallup-Allafrica Africa Forum, the first to launch, and the array of July 31-August 5, 2014, unofficial and official events all addressing key related topics.

Interactive dialogue and partnership are the summit's goals. Again, all good! Although I am cheering for and confident that the summit, in so many ways, will be successful, this one issue is something many of us cannot understand. Sub-regional sessions could be tied to single topics. For example, West or Central Africa sessions could focus on security, given challenges in Mali, Nigeria, and Central African Republic and threats to U.S. national interest. East Africa's topic could be energy, noting great efforts of EXIM, Commerce, USAID, USTDA and leaders to help the 550 million Africans without power.

The last three U.S. administrations - politics aside - have done a tremendous job changing the U.S.-Africa post-Cold War paradigm - creating out of the box, or next to the box signature initiatives from AGOA to PEPFAR to MCC to FEED the Future to YALI. All in which FEEEDS-CEO, during diplomatic and non-diplomatic years, has had an opportunity to be involved.

In sum, as an American and long-time Africa hand, FEEEDS-CEO is proud of all these things, and proud that the U.S. is having this summit - hopefully the first of many. Although, a summit was called for in the 2000 Africa Growth and Opportunity Act; it has taken 10 years to get there. Indeed, it is important for this event to be remembered in good light. Even if the summit is successful on many fronts, it might be footnoted everywhere that we couldn't find time to hold, at a minimum, five sub-regional sessions. It is not like we haven't held more than five before. If one recalls, and I do, as I was there and attended one, the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit had a similar number of world leaders, 49. According to various official U.S. scheduling reports, there were at least 9-10 bilateral sessions.

I am voting for this historic summit to be remembered for all the things we did right, not for the one thing we didn't do right. Let's reconsider and put sub-regional meetings on the agenda.