Will New Bill Help Africa Or Exploit It?

African Growth and Opportunity Act splits CBC and other black officials

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What could possibly be wrong with a bill that pledges to strengthen the economy and expand the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa, encourage trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa, and reduce tariff and nontariff barriers between the two regions? Well, it depends on whom you ask on the Hill.

The bill in question is H.R. 1432, also known as the “African Growth and Opportunity Act.” The House passed the bill last March with a vote of 233 to 186. But as the legislation works its way to the Senate floor, it is eliciting a flurry of debate between the ayes and nays. Opinions over the bill and its potential effect on developing African nations has split not only the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but also black officials across the country.

TransAfrica head Randall Robinson contends the legislation poses significant threats to Africa’s long-term interests. Robinson is concerned about the broad privatization of government assets that would have a potentially devastating impact on social benefits. He also says the bill lacks binding debt relief provisions as well as strong human rights and labor standards for African workers. Simply put, “It’s a bad bill,” says Robinson.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) agrees. “The real question posed by the bill,” he asked in a letter to President Clinton, “is growth for whom? And opportunity for whom?” According to Jackson, one of 11 CBC members who opposed the bill, its primary beneficiaries will be multinational corporations.

But the proposal does have supporters. Rep. Bill Jefferson (D-Louisiana), who voted for the bill, says while the legislation has drawbacks, it’s a critical first step. “It’s not a utopian piece of legislation. But it’s an important start that we’ve made toward recognizing that Africa must be treated as a significant trade and investment partner.” He adds the act is in fact designed to complement economic programs African nations themselves have decided to pursue by offering preferential access to the U.S. market. “The bill is focused on trade and job creation for sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S.,” he says. “It’s only one part of a broader strategy designed to facilitate the growth and development of African countries.”

In addition to other features, the bill proposes the establishment of a U.S. Sub-Saharan Africa Economic Cooperation Forum, the negotiating of free trade areas and expanding U.S. assistance to sub-Saharan Africa’s regional integration efforts.

Franklin Sonn, South African ambassador to the U.S., believes his country would benefit from the passage of the bill. “We’re hoping if this legislation goes through, there will be open tariffs and open access to the American markets, particularly in apparel and textiles.”

But Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, says despite what appears to be altruistic intentions on the surface, the bill would only exploit countries in no position to protect their best interests. “Most African countries fell in line because anything that looks like new money builds support,” Walters says. “A country with 80% of its gross national product involved in servicing its

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