Africa deserves our attention

President Joe Biden announced last month that the United States will host African leaders late this year for a summit focused on food security, climate change and other pressing matters. That's a positive development. Africa doesn't get near the attention it deserves.

Africa faces many challenges, and there's a lot the United States can and should do to try to make life better for the estimated 1.3 billion people who live there.

It's hard to generalize about Africa. It's a huge and diverse continent, made up of 54 countries. It includes vast deserts, tropical grasslands, mountain ranges and equatorial rainforests. It has vast uninhabited areas and crowded megacities. For every statement we make about Africa, we can find exceptions. A lot of what we think we know is overly simplistic or, sometimes, wrong.

African governments have been plagued by tyranny and corruption, but there has also been democracy. Grinding poverty and disease exist alongside surprising economic success. War and conflict seem ever present, but some areas are stable. Africa has had a lot of success, but its failures have often been dramatic.

Only in recent times has Africa's destiny been in the hands of Africans. Starting in the late 1800s, European powers divided up and conquered nearly all the continent, exploiting their colonies for labor and natural resources. Independence movements erupted 60 years ago, and Europe largely withdrew. But Cold War power struggles took over, with the United States and the Soviet Union contending for influence. Today some observers worry about a "Second Cold War," with the U.S., China and Russia positioning themselves as Africa's benefactors.

Some African independence leaders were inspirational figures, beloved by their people. Post-independence, Africa has not had a plethora of effective leaders, but there are exceptions. Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for leading South Africa out of its apartheid system.

Economic growth in Africa has not kept up with other regions. GDP has recently grown at a rate of 3% to 4%, but the growth has been driven by a few successful countries. The poverty rate has been declining, but not enough to keep pace with population increases. Over 400 million Africans live in extreme poverty.

External forces have buffeted the economies of many African countries. High prices for food and fuel, driven up by Russia's war in Ukraine, hit the continent especially hard. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed development.

Africa is arguably the region that will suffer most from climate change. Its economies rely on climate-dependent sectors such as agriculture. Drought has devastated harvests and expanded deserts. African institutions lack the resilience to respond effectively to climate shocks.

Climate change also brings migration, as does war, and Africa has had more than its share of the latter. Well over a million people have been displaced by recent armed conflict in the Central African Republic, the Darfur region of Sudan and the Lake Chad Basin and by Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria.

Health and health care are also serious concerns. The 10 countries with the world's highest infant mortality rates are in sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy falls short of 60 years in some nations. Over 25 million Africans live with HIV, according to the World Health Organization.

On the positive side, African leaders are increasingly looking to trade to spur growth and boost development. The African Continental Free Trade Area, which took effect last year, is projected to cut the continent's trade deficit in half.

Trade, the economy, health care, climate change, democracy, human rights: those topics and more will be on the agenda when African leaders visit the United States. Africa needs and deserves our attention, with all its problems and its promise.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.