The second annual trade and economic cooperation forum between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa opens Wednesday in Mauritius.
Representatives from 36 countries are scheduled to attend the meeting to discuss the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act, known as AGOA.
Trade ministers and other delegates will debate trade, conditions for investment and, in the words of the Act's supporters, "investing in people."
AGOA is a U.S. law, enacted in 2000, that allows certain African countries to import some products into the United States without paying customs duties or tariffs. The Act is credited with helping create thousands of jobs in Africa, and attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment to the continent.
Advocates say AGOA has drawn more than $900 million into South Africa, one of the Act's biggest beneficiaries.
On a trade mission to Africa several months ago, Commerce Secretary Don Evans said the Bush administration is committed to improving ties with the world's poorest continent.
"I think the record is clear that this government and this administration is very focused on continuing to strengthen the economic partnership between the United States and Africa," he said. "The African Growth And Opportunity Act is a very big deal."
But AGOA has its critics, too. Trade unions say the textile jobs created in countries such as Lesotho are low paying and exploitative. They say the Act has no built in protections for the environment, human rights or labor rights.
Opponents also say many of the companies that benefit most are owned not by African interests, but by European, Asian or American companies. So they complain that the Act is not really helping African business to grow.
Analysts say oil is the single biggest product to benefit from AGOA, accounting for more than 60 percent of Africa's exports to the United States.
U.S. officials and AGOA advocates insist that the Act is better than nothing, and they say low paying jobs are better than none at all.
U.S. President George W. Bush was originally supposed to attend the AGOA forum in Mauritius, but he postponed his Africa trip late last month amid increasing tensions over Iraq. The United States will be represented by its highest level trade representative, but President Bush's absence has already sparked low level complaints in some African countries.
At least one protest has been planned by a coalition of local groups opposed to U.S. trade policies. Mauritius police tried to ban the demonstration, but a judge last week ruled that the protesters have the right to demonstrate.
The forum will include representatives of the 36 countries that have been participating in AGOA since last year's meeting in Washington. It apparently will not include the latest two nations to be declared eligible for AGOA, Gambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. President Bush extended the invitation to both countries at the end of December.
The U.S. government has also warned two countries, Swaziland and Eritrea, that they could be dropped from the program if they do not improve their records on human rights and democracy.
The Mauritius meeting also includes a parallel trade exhibition for merchants and a forum for non-government groups concerned with development and trade issues.