President Bush's trip to five African nations (Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia) is the culmination of seven years of efforts to improve US relations and create trade and development partnerships with African nations.
Thanks to a host of Bush initiatives, Africa no longer sits on the margin of US foreign-policy interests - and American policy toward the continent's nations has shifted to emphasizing cooperation and partnership.
Specifically, the United States has successfully partnered with many African nations to combat the spread of disease, encourage economic development and growth and elevate the region's stature as a priority in US foreign and national security policy. These efforts have brought real improvements in Africans' lives.
Take US efforts to help Africa fight diseases. Bush announced the five-year, $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003 - the largest commitment by any country ever for an international health program dedicated to a single disease.
While global in scope, the program has a strong focus on Africa. Over the past five years, it has made it possible for 1.4 million Africans to get life-saving treatment, with an emphasis on preventing infant infections.
Then there's the five-year, $1.2 billion President's Malaria Initiative. Using public-private partnerships, this has distributed more than 6 million insecticide-treated bed nets to the benefit of about 25 million people so far.
On economic development, the United States from 2000 to 2006 quadrupled its assistance to sub-Saharan Africa to $5.6 billion. And to ensure that aid is effective, in 2004 the administration created the Millennium Challenge Corp. to administer the Millennium Challenge Account of development grants. Under this innovative approach, grants go to countries that institute important economic reforms - from increasing the transparency of their economic statistics to easing business regulation to fighting corruption and keeping public finances sound.
Over the last four years, the MCC has created a remarkable competition to reform ( "the MCC effect") among countries looking to qualify for grants. It has catalyzed important policy changes in nations like Benin, Madagascar and Lesotho.
The MCC has signed compacts with 16 nations, nine of them African nations, including three stops on the president's trip (Benin, Tanzania and Ghana). The nine African compacts total nearly $3.8 billion, accounting for 70 percent of the MCC's total grants to date.
Seizing on another powerful anti-poverty tool, the administration has expanded trade with Africa by opening the US market via the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Enacted in 2000, AGOA encourages trade and investment, helping African nations improve growth and integrate into the global economy. It also allows many African goods to receive zero-tariff access to the US market. Under AGOA, two-way trade between the United States and Africa has grown by almost 140 percent.
Then there's the security front. On Feb. 6, 2007, Bush announced the creation of a new, unified combatant command for Africa (AFRICOM) to oversee security, enhance strategic cooperation, build partnerships, support nonmilitary missions and conduct military operations as needed.
Securing our access to energy resources and preventing the spread of terrorism make Africa of growing importance to US national- and economic-security interests - but there's more.
The growth of global media and trade make African conflicts and tragedies feel ever more immediate to Americans, putting growing pressure on the US government to "do something." AFRICOM helps prepare our military to respond quickly to humanitarian crises and helps train African forces to help quell conflicts and instability so US forces needn't get directly involved.
In the years ahead, America should continue to expand partnerships in the region and play a leading role in helping African nations take the steps necessary to improve economic growth and development. Happily, Republicans and Democrats are in substantial agreement on Africa policy; even in a contentious election year, cooperation is quite practical.
The president's trip is a well-timed effort to emphasize the strides that have been made. Congress should work with this president and the next to ensure that the Bush initiatives continue to succeed beyond 2008.
First appeared in New York Post