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Institute urges US to make concerted efforts to partner with African countries on critical minerals

US President Joe Biden and US flag

US President Joe Biden

9th April 2024

By: Marleny Arnoldi

Deputy Editor Online

     

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A study group convened by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has made multiple recommendations for the US government to support mutually beneficial public and private partnerships in Africa, all in efforts to diversify US critical mineral supply chains.

The study group set out to explore the role that African countries play in the US’ efforts to diversity critical mineral supply chains and how new investment in partnerships can help drive economic development and strengthen peace and security on the African continent.

Based on meetings and interviews with technical, operational and policy experts, the study group confirmed that partnerships between the US and African countries could help diversify critical mineral supply chains, and strengthen the rule of law, transparency and environmental and labour standards around critical minerals.

The USIP states that US economic and national security depends on a reliable supply of critical minerals that underlie an array of products and services important to ever-changing modern economies. Yet for many critical minerals, such as cobalt, graphite and manganese, the US is heavily dependent on imports.

What is particularly concerning for the USIP is the US’ dependency on “foreign entities of concern” such as China for key critical metals.

Global demand for many critical minerals is growing rapidly. Accelerated demand forecasts are largely based on assumptions regarding a global transition to nonfuel-based energy sources, including high-end batteries for electric vehicles and power storage.

However, critical minerals are also essential to powering all manner of consumer electronics, medical supplies, and high-performance metals and engines, including those used for defence and military applications.

Consequently, regardless of how market and policy factors may change the trajectory of an energy transition, demand for key critical minerals is very likely to grow as economies worldwide increasingly electrify and modernise, the institute states.

To avoid being shorthanded and vulnerable to export controls and potential market manipulation by geopolitical competitors, it is imperative for the US to diversify its critical minerals supply chains.

MUTUAL BENEFITS

Africa can play an important role in strengthening US critical minerals supply chain security, the study group reiterates.

The US and allied countries already depend on many critical minerals that are sourced from African countries. However, increasing supply is not a simple matter.

The development of natural resources on the continent has a checkered past.

Ventures of the Russian-led paramilitary Wagner Group in Mali, Sudan and elsewhere are cases in a long history of predatory mining activities in Africa. Therefore, it should not be assumed that the global rush for critical minerals will be beneficial to African development and security.

In this regard, the US, its allies and the private sector can play a positive role – including by offering a better alternative to an approach to extracting Africa’s critical minerals common to Chinese companies, which have often offered little local value and resulted in corruption and human rights abuses, including child labour exploitation.

US mining and related companies could be much more engaged, however, as they remain largely absent from the continent.

While the Joe Biden-led administration and the US Congress have stepped up efforts to support US companies in African markets by derisking and otherwise supporting investments, progress is relative and there is no indication that China and other competitors are retreating, the study group finds.

In fact, the list of economic competitors in Africa is growing, with Gulf States and others intensifying their interest in African critical minerals. “If the US wants to remain competitive on the global stage, it must step up its efforts to diversify US critical minerals supply chains, including in Africa, the USIP states.

The study group reviewed US policy initiatives and explored key challenges, issues and opportunities associated with meeting US critical minerals objectives, primarily with a focus on further engaging Africa and challenging China’s dominance.

The group’s overarching conclusion is that the US government should act with increased speed, focus and decisiveness to support Africans in equitably and responsibly developing critical minerals.

In doing so, it should engage African countries in mutually beneficial partnerships aimed at bringing peace, prosperity and community stability to African citizens. Forging such partnerships will not be easy, but doing so could establish the US and its allies as Africa’s preferred partners in supporting the continent’s critical minerals development, the USIP said.

Global critical minerals markets are rapidly evolving, driven by new policies and technologies.

Africans often express a sense of urgency when discussing their major opportunity to tap natural resources and fuel positive development—as the critical minerals of today may not be critical tomorrow. Given this sense of urgency and the US’ strong interest in furthering its engagement on the continent, the potential for critical minerals partnerships that work for both Americans and Africans is high.

For these partnerships to be successful, though, much more work is needed.

LIST OF RECOMMENDATIONS

Ultimately, the study group recommends that the US design a comprehensive critical minerals strategy that aims to build mutually beneficial partnerships with Africans.

It adds that the US could bolster the involvement of African civil society in its efforts to build transparency and accountability in the critical minerals sector, including by providing more support for United States Agency for International Development activities and other US government programmes.

These existing programmes can also be leveraged to assist Africans with the rule of law and fiscal transparency efforts, which should also improve the business climate for responsible investors and foster greater peace – through better financial management of activities associated with critical minerals development.

The USIP also deems it necessary to fully develop a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the US, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia to fully realise its potential benefits through a productive partnership, which will require dedicated US resources.

To be most successful, the MoU will also need the full engagement and guidance of the US private sector across the battery supply chain. Commercial diplomacy can play an important role in this effort.

To make the most of its tools in the African critical minerals sector, the US government should sharpen the US International Development Finance Corporation’s (DFC’s) impact by, for example, emphasizing strategic investments that will also meet developmental priorities and increase the corporation’s presence in Africa.

The study group also notes that tools exist to mobilise more private US resources for African infrastructure development, including through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, the DFC, the Export-Import Bank, and US Trade and Development Agency to boost countries’ abilities to attract private infrastructure investment.

Moreover, the USIP recommends the US government practice more vigorous commercial diplomacy with a keen eye toward building critical minerals partnerships in Africa. Increasing the physical presence of diplomatic and commercial officers in mining centres is of utmost importance.

The US could also expand membership of the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP) to include African partners. The US is involved in several multinational partnerships involving critical minerals, including the MSP.

The MSP was established in 2022 to generate public and private investment in critical minerals production, processing, and recycling, with the ultimate goal of diversifying and securing critical minerals supply chains.

Currently, no African countries are included in the MSP.

 

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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