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Give Africa a Break


Location: Washington, DC

Columnist Nicholas Kristof had a good op-ed the past weekend, "Africa on the Rise." Many of the fastest growing economies in the last decade or so are in Africa. Kristof says, "Africa is becoming more democratic, more technocratic and more market-friendly." Maybe it's a "tiger economy," he suggests. I chaired the Africa Subcommittee for eight years, have long pushed for reform in Africa, and sure welcome this good news.

Yet calling Africa an "economic dynamo" is a stretch. We've heard of plenty of "tigers," "lions" and "dragons" in the developing world, only to see them fall to earth. Also, "Africa" is a vast place, showing great progress, and great despair, often side-by-side.

This bit of hype aside, Kristof's key message is that Africa has promise and deserves greater attention. I agree. China has sure noticed Africa, Kristof tells his readers, which may have national security implications for us. And I very much appreciate that he flags congressional inaction on renewing a critical trade provision, which jeopardizes African economic gains.

Kristof gives an on-the-scenes report on the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, bipartisan legislation I am proud to have helped pass twelve years ago. He writes while visiting an apparel facility in Lesotho that employs 10,000 because of AGOA. I have seen that facility too. He calls AGOA "one of the best aid programs you've never heard of," because it isn't aid, he notes, it's trade. Today, American consumers see "Made in Lesotho" labels.

I held a hearing a few weeks ago to highlight how this could all end. Quite badly, witnesses warned. A provision allowing African-manufactured apparel to use "third country fabric" and still be imported duty-free to the U.S. is set to expire. The three hundred thousand African apparel jobs AGOA has made possible are at risk. Already, 5,000 in Lesotho have been laid off, mostly women who support families, many extended families. In the competitive and global apparel market, most of these jobs will go in a flash to Asia, and for good. Yet legislation to fix this problem is just sitting.

Facing strong opposition a dozen years ago, it was a huge struggle to pass AGOA. Extending this critical AGOA provision today has no discernible opposition. That's the frustrating part. Kristof hits Congress for its "maddening" delay. He's right. But the Obama Administration has been AWOL. If Africa is important, the President must weigh-in. Africa has enough challenges to become an economic dynamo without taking this blow. Let's get moving.

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