AGOA: Promoting trade and respect for human rights in Africa

The U.S. government offers African nations preferred access to U.S. markets through the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). But to maintain AGOA’s benefits, governments in sub-Saharan Africa must respect human rights.

In recent years, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Eswatini and The Gambia have regained trade benefits under AGOA after making progress on human rights and other AGOA eligibility criteria.

The criteria are set out in U.S. law. That’s why on November 2, President Biden announced his intent to end AGOA benefits for these three countries starting on January 1, 2022, unless their governments take urgent action:

  • Ethiopia
  • Guinea
  • Mali

The Biden administration cited “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in Ethiopia and the unconstitutional change in governments in both Guinea and Mali as reasons for these countries potentially losing AGOA benefits.

The decision comes as violence in northern Ethiopia has displaced more than 2 million people since November 2020. Up to 900,000 people are facing famine-like conditions created by the conflict. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged Ethiopia’s government and others to halt military action in northern Ethiopia and to allow humanitarian access to people in need.

Children smiling and waving behind low wall (Photo: © Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock)
(Photo: © Riccardo Mayer/Shutterstock)

Holding countries to high standards

AGOA, enacted in 2000 and later extended through 2025, allows qualifying producers in sub-Saharan African countries to export to the U.S. market duty free. That law has benefited a wide range of business sectors in the U.S.-Africa trade relationship, including agriculture, apparel and fashion.

AGOA is a trade benefit, not a foreign assistance program. Countries that meet the eligibility criteria qualify for trade preferences designed to promote increased opportunity and prosperity through increased trade between AGOA-eligible countries and the United States.

To remain eligible for AGOA’s benefits, African governments must not engage in gross violations of human rights, and, among other criteria, must make continual progress to:

  • Reduce poverty.
  • Combat corruption and bribery.
  • Protect internationally recognized worker rights.
  • Establish rule of law, political pluralism and the right to due process.

Thirty-eight African nations qualified for AGOA benefits in 2020, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. In December 2020, the United States restored AGOA benefits for the Democratic Republic of the Congo after President Felix Tshisekedi took steps to strengthen democratic institutions, combat corruption and protect human rights.

Child's hands resting in adult's hand (© Ben Curtis/AP Images)
The U.S. has called on Ethiopia to act immediately and alleviate the suffering of the Ethiopian people, such as this mother and her malnourished daughter shown in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia May 11. (© Ben Curtis/AP Images)

On November 2, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai urged Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali to take the steps necessary for the U.S. to reinstate their eligibility for AGOA benefits.

“These countries are set to be removed from this program due to actions taken by their governments in violation of the AGOA Statute,” Tai said. “The United States urges these governments to take necessary actions to meet the statutory criteria so we can resume our valued trading partnerships.”