Commentary: How investing in Africa gives China advantage over U.S.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders has brought 2,700 Africans to America for six weeks of training at U.S. universities and colleges since 2014. They have participated in programs that help enhance their skills in the areas of business, entrepreneurship, civic leadership and public service.

But if something doesn’t change, this program will end in 2019. Killing this program would be a big mistake. And not for the reasons many may think.

This fall, America’s debt will pass the $20 trillion point. So it is understandable that many Americans might question why we should “waste” money on foreign aid for developing countries when we are facing a debt crisis at home.

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The answer is simple. The best way for America to reduce its debt is for us to grow our economy faster. We cannot do that if we abandon the developing world. Africa is a perfect example of why it is in America’s interest to keep providing foreign assistance.

Africa is transforming itself in ways that most Americans don’t understand. African countries have some of the fastest growing economies in the world. The problem for America is that the No. 1 external driver of that transformation is a massive level of investment from the People’s Republic of China.

China has invested almost $1 trillion in thousands of different projects in nearly every country in Africa. Millions of Chinese business people have moved to Africa and now play a major role in the economic life of every African country.

Today, China is Africa’s No. 1 trading partner, No. 1 source of foreign direct investment and No. 1 source of foreign aid. So while we have been thinking about pulling out of Africa, the Chinese have been piling on.

Many American still think that Ethiopia is a desperately poor country that is always on the verge of collapse. But that is no longer the case. Ethiopia is the fastest growing economy in Africa, and the Chinese have played a major role in the process. This story is being repeated all across Africa.

Do we really want to write off a continent with 1.2 billion people? Who will buy our products if we turn inward and ignore the rest of the world? The government of China believes that the only way it can continue to grow its economy is to help turn Africa and Latin America into middle income continents. Do we really want to let the Chinese “own” Africa and Latin America?

Today, the Chinese are building airports, railroads, roads, hospitals, universities, sports stadiums, schools, telephone lines, mines and much, much more. All that we have to offer are programs like the Mandela Young African Leaders Institute and military assistance funding. If we let the Mandela YALI program die, we won’t have much left to offer Africa. And now is not the time to stop competing with China.

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It is time for America’s business and political leaders to understand that we are in a race with China for influence in every part of the world. It is time for us to stop thinking of Africa as a basket case in need of aid. Instead, we must view Africa as a brave new world that will be one of the most dynamic continents in the future.

Continuing funding of programs such as the Mandela Washington Fellowship is a first step in continuing the conversation. In addition, it is time for Americans to understand that there are 54 independent countries in Africa. We must develop a new, mutually beneficial relationship with each one of these countries before it is too late.

Doggett is a senior lecturer of global management and entrepreneurship in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.

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