In a Washington increasingly dominated by partisan politics, Congress and the White House are on the verge of a bipartisan action that will have a positive impact on the lives of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. This year, the House and the Senate passed separate versions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
By boosting trade relations between the United States and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, this legislation will unleash latent economic dynamism in Africa. It will bolster fledgling democracies and improve the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.
However, despite overwhelming evidence that this bill will do a lot of good in Africa, some people here at home still oppose expanding trade. They fear that increased trade with Africa could cost American jobs. These are concerns that could easily attract sympathy, but they also happen to be misplaced. The bill passed by the House was studied in detail by the nonpartisan U.S. International Trade Commission. Its conclusion: The bill would cost few if any American workers their jobs, as imports from Africa would largely replace other imports, not American-made goods.
The African Growth and Opportunity Act represents a new hope for Africa’s people. Without economic empowerment, political empowerment is often hollow, even short-lived. The United States has worked very hard to encourage democracy in Africa. Helping Africa’s economy through expanded trade relations is a great way to build on this investment. Moreover, there is significant domestic support for expanded trade with Africa. As they did in helping end apartheid in South Africa, major African-American groups and their leaders have joined with African leaders to speak out in favor of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. The Reverend Leon Sullivan, author of the Sullivan Principles, which formed the backbone of the successful economic effort to end apartheid, has endorsed the bill.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Congress of National Black Churches — one of the largest ecumenical coalitions in America — have endorsed the bill. So also has Africare — a group whose sole purpose is to help Africa help itself — as well as every one of Africa’s democratically elected governments. These leaders and groups share a common vision: a vision of a prosperous, stable and democratic Africa that can compete in the global economy, to the benefit of its people and the rest of the world.
But our fight is not over. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the bill, and bold leadership will be necessary to bridge the differences between them. This must be the bottom-line test for any African trade bill: What would actually encourage trade and investment in the region and bring true benefits to Africa’s people?
While it would be great to see Africa jump on the high-tech bandwagon that is powering growth throughout the world, the reality is that the countries of sub-Saharan Africa need an opportunity to get into the game at all before they can run with the high-tech bulls. And the time-tested way most countries — such as Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia — have climbed up the economic ladder is in the manufacture of clothing.
Textile production is one of the most labor-intensive basic manufacturing operations. The House version of the African trade bill recognizes this and focuses considerable attention on giving African countries the opportunity to sell affordable clothing to working families in the United States. It is reasonable to require that, in order to get the benefits of this bill, products “made in” African countries should be “wholly assembled” in Africa.
For example, we could require that all of the labor that goes into the assembly or knitting of clothing from bolts of cloth and spools of yarn — all the cutting, stitching, sewing and finishing — be performed in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to bringing the greatest benefits to Africa’s people, this approach would counter charges made by the bill’s critics that Asian companies could ship semi-finished products through Africa just to avoid U.S. import taxes.
Unfortunately, the Senate version of the trade bill, while it does many laudable things, contains some fundamental flaws that will render the major elements practically futile. A case in point is the requirement that African apparel manufacturers who wish to trade with the United States must purchase fabric and yarn from U.S. sources. This might seem attractive to politicians seeking to show their constituents that they got something in return for helping poor African countries. But it simply won’t work.
African apparel manufacturers should be free to buy materials at competitive prices from anywhere in the world. Without this freedom, African companies will never be able to compete against entrenched producers around the world. Given the long distances and high transportation costs, it makes no sense to require that fabric and yarn be shipped all the way from the United States, transformed into African-made apparel and then shipped back to the United States. American-made fabric or yarn often is not available for many types of clothing (silk or cashmere, for example), or is substantially more expensive than those from other sources. To illustrate this point, U.S. apparel workers are currently pushing to eliminate U.S. import taxes on high-quality fabric for men’s suits. The reason: Their union, UNITE, argues that this type of fabric is not available in the United States.
A real policy of trade with the 750 million people in sub-Saharan Africa is long overdue. By creating hope and opportunity in Africa, the African Growth and Opportunity Act will help Africans, as well as American consumers and American taxpayers. Congress should seize the moment and pass a commercially meaningful African Growth and Opportunity Act.