One of Africa’s most influential champions

Africa ReportThe Africa Report named Rose Whitaker as of the world’s most influential lobbyists for Africa in its December, 2014, edition. Here is a Q&A she did with editor Patrick Smith:

The Africa Report: Can African governments change US policy for the better?

Rosa Whitaker: We have a situation where support for Africa is broad but not deep. Goodwill towards Africa is on an upward trajectory, but policy is on a downward trajectory. We’ve had AGOA [the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act], Power Africa, so now what? I’m a third-generation Washingtonian, I’ve worked in Congress and in the administration. You have to push to get things done here [in the US]. I would like to have seen a unified policy agenda from Africa, not just a wish list. AGOA was a trade response. What we need is an investment response. You don’t see a lot of US companies investing in Africa.

I would like to have seen a unified policy agenda from Africa, not just a wish list

How can you change that?

We need two kinds of tax credits. Firstly, for US companies in Africa when they repatriate their profits back home. Secondly, a development credit for US companies that are sourcing from Africa, that is buying products with a significant African content. We know from AGOA that we can deal with transshipment problems [third party countries using Africa as a platform to boost their exports to the US].

How should Africa get its position across?

Africa is the only region not represented in the US by a single strong chamber of commerce. Africa needs a political action committee like the Jewish community has AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. They could raise money for candidates that care about Africa, find ways to get out the vote for people who agree with this agenda and change the attitude towards Africa to one of mutual interest. You’re not buying votes. You’re investing in getting your interests across.

People criticise the lobbyists, saying that Nigeria is not getting value for money?

I find some of that lobbying has helped Nigeria. The way that Nigeria got its Ebola [containment] story out, someone pushed that. The same with investment. GE is now investing hugely in Nigeria, and Boko Haram isn’t dominating the narrative. Nigeria has many good things to say. We have some very good lobbying and communications companies in Washington. If they could team up with an African company that really understands the continent, that would be a wonderful combination.

Are lobbyists really needed? Shouldn’t African diplomats do that job?

A lobbyist liaises with Congress and the administration. It’s a skill. How do you insert specific language into this bill? There is nothing wrong with an African country hiring people with these skills. When I worked in Congress, I appreciated lobbyists. They had the capacity to do research. You can talk to lobbyists on all sides of the agenda. In DC, you have to help the government forge a consensus on an issue.

When I was in government, I saw how different departments take different positions on an issue. That can be healthy. We have more of an open door for people from different areas to engage, also a capacity to self-correct when we make mistakes. The problem is that some of the companies are very bad. For example, I have seen lobbying firms charge governments for media monitoring. Then they dress up the reports and set up meetings of no substance.

Our power in Washington is very decentralised. African diplomats find it very different from Europe. They hire firms and let them get away with doing very little. Generally, firms just don’t give Africa the time and attention it demands. So you have to get those lobbyists who just love the continent.

What is your role these days?

We are advocating for the private sector. Someone will identify a project with significant development potential, and we will go out and build a consortium of interested people. Now we’re working with leaders from Silicon Valley to invest in African IT projects. We’re not just doing a fund but we have a team of people that will help African companies succeed and launch a company that can go up to an IPO. We have a young African entrepreneur that is the founder of this company. The people from Silicon Valley are putting in the support around his vision.