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Sunday, March 22, 1998 Published at 06:16 GMT

Special Report

Looking for new economic opportunities
image: [ South Africa's first fully democratic election is one indicator of the continent's progress ]
South Africa's first fully democratic election is one indicator of the continent's progress

The US President, Bill Clinton, went on an unprecedented six-nation tour of Africa. The main aim of the trip was to promote the administration's new policy for the continent, which emphasises trade rather than aid.

The BBC's Henri Astier says the Americans are increasingly treating sub-Saharan Africa as an emerging economic power.

The BBC's Washington Correspondent Stephen Sackur analyses the motives behind the visit (1'41')
Since the end of the slave trade, Americans have paid little attention to Africa. The US has traditionally viewed the continent as a nasty place, rendered even nastier by colonial greed.

Even during the Cold War, Washington didn't bother to fight the USSR's African clients directly, preferring to rely on local proxies.

[ image: Bill Clinton wants to encourage trade with Africa]
Bill Clinton wants to encourage trade with Africa
But the era of neglect seems to be over. Bill Clinton is the first serving US president to make a comprehensive tour of Africa.

His 11-day trip - with hundreds of businessmen and advisers in tow - was the longest foreign tour of his presidency.

The reason for the change is that the US administration has taken notice of recent developments in Africa - and it likes what it sees.

Many governments have embraced US-style recipes for economic growth, based on private enterprise, open markets and fiscal restraint - this seems to be working.

Since the mid-1990s the growth rates of African economies have averaged 4% a year, well above the population growth of under 3%.

Presidential advisor Joseph Wilson: `There are some common threads in the selection of countries' (0'18')
Washington is also heartened by the progress of democracy, which it views as a key to development: some 25 African countries have held free elections since 1990.

[ image: Madeleine Albright spoke of the 1980s as Africa's `lost decade']
Madeleine Albright spoke of the 1980s as Africa's `lost decade'
In short, the American administration thinks the tiger economies of the future may well be found south of the Sahara.

As the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, recently put it, "the lost decade of the 1980s is being replaced by the growth decade of the 1990s".

In an effort to help the process along, the administration announced last year a "Partnership for Economic Growth and Opportunity". This grants duty-free access to American markets for African countries which reform their economies.

The initiative is also designed to promote interest in Africa among American investors; and it includes schemes to increase aid and write-off debt.

Initiative is politically popular

The presidential initiative, which has been approved by the House of Representatives, enjoys strong bipartisan support.

Republicans like it because it stresses markets and it is cheap; the Democrats like it because it is meant to help the developing world.

The plan is widely expected to be endorsed by the Senate. But the verdict which matters most for the US administration is that of the US business community.

Mr Clinton's trip was designed to show that Africa is not the disaster zone many people assume it is. The US exports more to sub-Saharan countries than to all the former Soviet Republics combined, including Russia.

True, direct American investment in Africa remains very low; instability and corruption is still rife in some areas. But many US corporations, from Coca-Cola to Microsoft, are expanding their operations on the continent.

The growing consensus in the US is that the Americans need to be there when Africa finally takes off.

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In this section

Itinerary and guide to Clinton's visit

Clinton bids Africa farewell

America's cold war heritage in Africa

From Despatches
Clinton's Africa trip overshadowed by scandal

Looking for new economic opportunities

France and the US: The scramble for Africa

African Americans watch Clinton odyssey