AGOA: The U.S.-Africa Trade Program
Backgrounder

AGOA: The U.S.-Africa Trade Program

U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa has plateaued in recent years, prompting analysts to question the effectiveness of a preferential trade program for the region.
A worker sews at an export processing zone factory in Athi River, Kenya.
A worker sews at an export processing zone factory in Athi River, Kenya. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
Summary
  • Launched in 2000, AGOA is a landmark preferential trade program that allows countries in sub-Saharan Africa to export products to the United States tariff free.
  • Many experts say the program has failed to live up to expectations. After an initial rise in trade, the region’s exports to the United States have stagnated.
  • In 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden removed several countries from AGOA amid congressional debate over the program’s future.

Introduction

The African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, has been the cornerstone of U.S. efforts to cultivate deeper economic relations with sub-Saharan Africa since 2000. The program offers more than thirty participants preferential access to U.S. markets by eliminating import tariffs.

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Policymakers hoped that AGOA, as the primary U.S. trade policy for the region, would foster economic and political development in Africa, the world’s fastest-growing continent in both economy and population. However, the outsize roles of oil and apparel in African export growth have raised questions about whether AGOA can diversify the region’s economies and increase its competitiveness in global markets. Moreover, after peaking in 2008, U.S. trade with AGOA’s participants has stagnated. Meanwhile, African trade relationships with other countries, particularly China, have greatly expanded, adding urgency to debate in the U.S. Congress over whether to renew the program for the fifth time.

Why was AGOA created?

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Sub-Saharan Africa

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Trade

Development

AGOA is a trade preference program established in 2000 as part of broader legislation President Bill Clinton enacted to strengthen U.S. trade ties with Africa and the Caribbean. The act is unilateral, meaning it does not require African countries to lower their own barriers to U.S. goods, though it encourages them to do so. President Clinton saw the policy as a way to boost growth and bolster democratic ideals across the continent. He also said it would strengthen the U.S. economy by opening markets with “hundreds of millions of potential consumers” to American producers and help African countries develop and diversify their economies.

The act is an extension of the Generalized System of Preferences, a U.S. trade preference system introduced in 1974 that allows more than one hundred countries, mostly low-income nations, to export many of their goods to the United States duty-free. AGOA goes even further, offering this access to more than five thousand products from its thirty-five current participants. It also mandates the executive branch to increase U.S. development assistance to sub-Saharan African countries in areas including agriculture and HIV/AIDS prevention. It was set to expire in 2008 but has since been renewed four times. AGOA faces its next extension deadline in 2025.

Which countries take part in it?

Only sub-Saharan African countries are eligible to be beneficiaries of AGOA, and the legislation outlines requirements candidates must fulfill, such as upholding the rule of law and human rights and liberalizing their economies. However, U.S. presidents can disqualify countries at their discretion and have done so, citing reasons such as rights violations and protectionist policies. Participants graduate out of AGOA [PDF] if per capita gross national income reaches a level that the World Bank considers high income.

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A map showing that most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are AGOA beneficiaries

Of the forty-nine potential beneficiaries in the region, thirty-five countries currently take part. Fourteen are suspended, including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mali, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Somalia and Sudan have not requested AGOA designation, while Equatorial Guinea and Seychelles graduated out of the program. In the lead-up to the annual AGOA Forum in October 2023, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he will remove four more countries effective January 2024, citing human rights violations in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Uganda, and failures to protect political pluralism and the rule of law in Gabon and Niger amid coups d’état in each earlier this year. Mauritania, however, will regain its status for its “measurable progress on worker rights and eliminating forced labor,” the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

Trade

Development

How has the program fared?

AGOA received strong bipartisan support early on, with policymakers and trade officials pointing to a spike in U.S. imports of African goods as proof of its success: in the decade after the program began, exports from AGOA countries to the United States nearly tripled, rising from $22 billion to $61 billion. In 2010, Rosa Whitaker, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for Africa, called AGOA a “phenomenal success,” saying it had created more than three hundred thousand jobs on the continent, while the nonprofit African Coalition for Trade estimated in 2012 that up to 1.3 million jobs [PDF] were created indirectly. 

Some analysts say the program has also helped several African countries diversify their economies. For example, South Africa ramped up its automotive exports to the United States from $150 million in 2000 to a high of $2.2 billion in 2013. Apparel production also spiked, particularly in East Africa. The most AGOA-related jobs were generated in this sector, according to the Brookings Institution. In 2022, more than $10 billion in African exports entered the United States under the program.

However, some experts say U.S.-Africa trade relations remain underdeveloped. After the initial jump in the first decade of the program, exports gradually fell to near their 2000 level by the mid-2010s, and they have only slowly begun to gain back the lost ground. Diversification has also lagged, with oil and gas dominating AGOA exports since 2001, and nearly 90 percent of the non-energy U.S. imports from Africa in 2022 came from only five countries. South Africa contributes the majority of exports, at more than 56 percent in 2021. Additionally, less than 1 percent of imports to the United States in 2021 came from sub-Saharan Africa, a 56 percent decrease from 2000; by comparison, the region produced nearly 4 percent of China’s imports and roughly the same portion of those for the European Union (EU).

What are criticisms of the program?

Enthusiasm for AGOA among U.S. policymakers has faltered in recent years. In addition to worries about falling exports, there are concerns about Africa’s continued dependence on low-value-added products and natural resources; few beneficiaries have moved into the value-added manufacturing the legislation hoped to spur.

International trade experts Witney Schneidman, Kate McNulty, and Natalie Dicharry point to the dominance of a handful of the program’s participants to argue that both the United States and many of its AGOA counterparts have failed to use the program effectively. Only eighteen AGOA participants have crafted national strategies for taking advantage of the program, they say, signaling that the program’s goal of driving African economic development is falling short.

CFR President Michael Froman, who was U.S. trade representative under President Barack Obama, has said that obstacles including corruption and poor infrastructure have hindered the competitiveness of African producers and limited the program’s success. Other experts say the program lacks provisions to help U.S. exporters and investors compete with their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere.

Additionally, AGOA does not include fast-growing sectors such as digital and financial services. In recent years, analysts have called on the United States to push for more private-sector investment to take advantage of the region’s economic growth, which was higher than the global average over the fifteen years after AGOA was implemented. However, sub-Saharan Africa has not bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic-induced recession like other regions have, and growth remains muted

Critics also note that removing countries for human rights abuses does little to help the communities affected. When Ethiopia, previously one of the biggest AGOA beneficiaries, lost its eligibility status in 2022 over conflict in the country’s north, the country lost more than one hundred thousand jobs with it, and the fighting still rages on. Experts say these expulsions could push countries to strengthen trade ties with other powers; some Ethiopian business leaders, for instance, have argued in favor of moving closer to China, given Beijing’s no-strings-attached approach to investment.

How have other countries approached trade in Africa?

China-Africa trade has soared since 2000, with China surpassing the United States as the largest single trade partner in 2009. Chinese trade with the region reached an all-time high of over $250 billion in 2021 as Beijing exported pandemic-related supplies to many of its African partners. China maintains special trade and economic cooperation zones in several sub-Saharan countries, and has provided more than $150 billion in development loans to the continent since 2000. Additionally, all but a handful of sub-Saharan countries are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Analysts have raised concerns, however, over the high levels of debt that some African countries have taken on as the result of Chinese financing. But an economic slump and growing political tensions has caused some of China’s financial flows to ebb, and the International Monetary Fund has warned [PDF] that Africa’s dependence on China could lead to economic vulnerabilities.  

The EU, another major trade partner, has signed economic agreements with regional blocs in western, eastern, and southern Africa in which both sides offer preferential treatment on tariffs for certain goods. It also has trade partnerships with more than a dozen individual countries, including Cameroon, Ghana, Madagascar, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and negotiations of other regional deals are underway. Since the African Union’s 2019 launch of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), a trade bloc consisting of nearly every African country, the EU has touted plans to eventually reach a continent-to-continent free trade agreement. Some analysts, however, say that bringing such a deal to fruition would require the bloc to remedy its asymmetrical trade relationships with African partners by evening the playing field and opening more of its protected markets.

Other countries in Asia, such as India, Japan, and South Korea have expanded their presence in sub-Saharan Africa as well. India’s trade with the region saw a more than tenfold increase from 2000 to 2019, reaching $56 billion, alongside surges in private investment in telecommunications, information technology, and energy. 

What is the future of AGOA?

Congress last renewed AGOA in 2015 and now holds the pen on its upcoming renewal, as it is set to expire in 2025. The Biden administration says it is seeking to improve upon the existing program, but it could face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill.

At its inception, AGOA was widely viewed as a first step toward permanent free trade agreements (FTAs), which would provide additional certainty for investors by locking in trade benefits. However, Washington has not concluded any FTAs with sub-Saharan African countries. Although it held negotiations [PDF] with the members of the Southern African Customs Union—Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa—those fell through in 2006, in part due to disagreements over intellectual property rights and foreign investment rules. Under President Donald Trump, the United States began drafting an FTA with Kenya, but that deal was set aside under Biden in favor of the Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership, which aims to improve several areas of economic collaboration. Biden has also sought to revamp the Trump-era Prosper Africa initiative, which aims to boost trade and investment with the continent. 

The AfCFTA could also play a major role in AGOA’s path forward. Proponents say the agreement, signed by all of the African Union’s fifty-five member states except Eritrea, will boost regional trade by forming a single market and that it will create millions of jobs across the continent. In light of this, some analysts have suggested that Washington should use AfCFTA as the foundation for talks to create a new strategic economic partnership rather than renewing AGOA.

The 2023 AGOA Forum, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, exemplified the debate over AGOA’s future and the tensions between the United States and its African partners; U.S. lawmakers, frustrated with South Africa over its alleged ties with Russia amid that country’s war in Ukraine, unsuccessfully lobbied to move the summit location. Furthermore, Congress is divided on AGOA’s looming expiration. The program has long had bipartisan support, but extending its mandate will likely require negotiation. Supporters of the program say it is crucial to U.S. efforts to remain competitive with other global powers, such as China and Russia. Skeptics see opportunity for reform in AGOA’s next decade, including more market access for U.S. exporters and greater diplomatic support for U.S. priorities.

Recommended Resources

This episode of the Why It Matters podcast asks what Africa’s youth boom will mean for the continent’s future.

This Backgrounder looks at China’s growing footprint in Africa.

Shirley Ze Yu, senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, explains why Chinese FDI is flowing into Africa.

The Economist examines India’s increasing foreign investment in low-income countries.

For Foreign Policy, the Brookings Institution’s Landry Signé lays out how to restore U.S. credibility in Africa.

World Bank consultant Gracelin Baskaran argues that AGOA is better than bilateral free trade agreements.

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Antonio Barreras Lozano contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the map.

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