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Africa Summit Hopes To Change The Narrative About The Continent


African leaders have been pouring into Washington this weekend at the invitation of President Obama. They're here to attend the first ever U.S.-Africa leadership summit, which begins tomorrow. NPR's Africa correspondent Gregory Warner is also here in Washington, and he'll be covering the summit. He's here with me right now. Hi, Greg.


RATH: So what's the aim of this summit?

WARNER: I mean, there's one overriding aim according to the State Department, and that is starting to change the narrative about Africa in the United States. And look, we all know the old Africa story - war, disease, Ebola, poverty. The aim of the summit is to change that to an economic story. Africa, as a continent, has had record growth over the past 14 years, an expanding middle class - changing that narrative among American people, but especially American businesses.

RATH: So that's kind of a tall order. How realistic is it to think they can change the narrative and affect a major public relations change like that?

WARNER: Well, even one big summit can't do all of that. But this is a message that the Obama administration has really been prepping since almost the start of the second term. I mean, Secretary Kerry made two trips during that time. President Obama made one fairly extended trip, the longest for a U.S. president. The consistent message on those trips was the same - American companies need to invest in Africa. Interesting to note that China has summits like this with African leaders all the time. In fact, when the Chinese president took office, the first international trip he took was to Africa. So there's clearly a very different attitude. And there is a degree of competing with China that is driving this summit.

RATH: And so how does the U.S. and China - how do they compare in terms of trading partners for Africa?

WARNER: Well, China surpassed the U.S. as a trading partner in 2009. At this point, China trades about 2.7 times what America trades. And living in Nairobi as I do, you can see that. You know, you walk by a construction site, the face under the hardhat is Chinese. In fact, that's actually a criticism, that Chinese companies mostly higher Chinese laborers for their projects. That gives jobs to people in China, but maybe not the best thing for Africans. But this is also about asking some hard questions, Why are U.S. companies not investing? Why are American young people not going over to Africa to start their first business as Israelis are, as Brazilians are, as Chinese people are?

RATH: So not to stay fixated on that old narrative you talked about...With everything that's going on in Africa right now, to focus on investment like this, if - maybe not in poor taste, but is it kind of bad timing?

WARNER: Well, President Obama said last year in South Africa, in his speech, Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men. Tomorrow, many of those strong men will be showing up at the invitation of President Obama. So there is an irony there. And it's an irony, certainly, that international aid agencies have pointed out, even African civil society groups. So human rights groups, governance groups, people trying to fix their countries have pointed out, hey, why aren't we also invited to the summit? Why is it only or mostly - a vast majority - African business leaders and African government, presidents? Now, look, at the same time, there are those who argue, look. America has tried to play that moralizing role in Africa for decades. It hasn't really been that effective. Maybe bringing in jobs, bringing in power, bringing in opportunity, working with African businesses is ultimately a better way to fix conditions for Africans than simply giving out statements.

RATH: NPR's Gregory Warner. Thank you so much.

WARNER: Thanks, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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