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First lady Michelle Obama’s upcoming five-day goodwill tour to sub-Saharan Africa, designed to highlight HIV/AIDS projects and inspire young adults there, is billed by the White House as an important next step in the administration’s outreach to the continent.

But the trip also has resurrected criticism among a vocal subset of Africa advocates — including President Obama supporters — who say they are disappointed that the first American president with African roots has not personally focused more on the region.

Critics cite changes to a HIV/AIDS program advanced during the Bush administration, the relatively limited time Obama has spent on the continent as president and their belief that Africa has become less significant in U.S. foreign policy.

Expectations for American engagement with Africa soared when Obama took office, with advocates citing his previous travels to his father’s homeland of Kenya and attention paid to African nations while he was a senator. But while Obama has talked about his “family members who live in villages” and told an Africa-focused Web site that he is “probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who’s occupied my office,” he has made just one presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa.

On that 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009, Obama spoke to the country’s parliament about his father growing up herding goats in a tiny village and outlined his approach to foreign assistance on the continent.

“The true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by — it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change,” he said.

Yet the big challenges facing the continent — poverty, government corruption, threats of extremism, and AIDS — have not drawn the White House attention that Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director of TransAfrica Forum, had hoped for.

U.S. officials, said Munthali, “are not seeing Africa as a big priority. There has been some ambivalence.”

Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, a Ghanaian who runs a New York investment and research firm specializing in Africa, pointed to what he said was the irony in the shared disappointment. “We really said if a black man became president, it would change the world, but we are basically back at the same level we were before,” he said. “The bulk of the policy is still the legacy of the Clinton and Bush years. The Obama legacy toward Africa is still yet to be seen.”

White House officials disagreed, saying that the administration has laid out clear priorities in Africa: supporting democratic regimes, decreasing hunger and developing the $63 billion Global Health Initiative. That program seeks to integrate the Bush administration’s focus on AIDS with a wider approach to public health issues.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, noted that Obama met with the leaders of Nigeria and Gabon this month, and last year hosted a large group of handpicked young adults from the continent for a White House forum.

“We have looked for ways for him to continue to speak to the African people directly,” Rhodes said.

 



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