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Many Favor African Trade Bill, But Will Congress Ever Vote?

It's a bold new trade initiative. It stresses that developmental aid must be seen as complementary to and supportive of trade and private sector investment. President Clinton announced his support earlier in the year. But now, the most significant piece of proposed legislation to affect Africa since the end of the cold war is in danger of becoming a victim of Washington politics rather than being debated on its merits.

Reps. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, Philip Crane (R) of Illinois, and Jim McDermott (D) of Washington introduced the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (H.R. 1432), and it has strong bipartisan support.

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At its first congressional hearing last April, I testified in support of the legislation. Such diverse figures as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, House International Relations Committee chairman Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, and the majority of the congressional Black Caucus all are advocates.

Yet, because of attempts to attach the bill to "fast track" trade agreements, to dilute its contents, and to stall the vote on the bill, the future of this important legislation hangs in the balance. Now that Congress is in recess, it's possible the bill may never resurface for a vote.

That would be unfortunate, to say the least. It is in the mutual economic interest of the United States and the countries of Africa to promote programs, policies, and strategies that reduce poverty through economic growth, self-reliance, and commerce. Passage of this bill would create American jobs and increase exports, while improving the quality of life on the African continent.

Today, we're seeing many positive developments to encourage private-sector involvement in Africa. More democratic governance and open elections are in place than I0 years ago, and legislative revisions allow for increased trade and investment opportunities. This unprecedented wave of democratization has begun to build a foundation for prosperity.

The economies of many countries in Africa have been strengthened as a result of structural changes: The average rate of economic growth in Africa was 3.8 percent in 1995 and 5.4 percent in 1996, excluding Nigeria and South Africa. In 1995, United States exports to Africa totaled $5.4 billion.

Opportunities for further United States trade and investment are still very much available, in agribusiness, capital markets, the energy sector, education, food production, and other sectors.

My organization, the nonprofit Constituency for Africa, has spent the last 11 months spearheading advocacy of this bill by convening town hall meetings in major cities across the United States. I've met many individuals and companies that are interested in pursuing business opportunities in Africa - particularly if Congress helps provide leadership.

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We need to finish what we've started. Congress not only should vote on this initiative, but also actively support it. I applaud those members of Congress who have backed the bill from the start, and I urge undecided members to vote for the legislation. It would be a preliminary step to building a sustainable and mutually beneficial economic partnership between the United States and Africa.

* David N. Dinkins is chairman of the board of directors of the Constituency for Africa and the former mayor of New York City.

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