What President Obama can do for Africa

In July 2008 Barack Obama called for a doubling of US aid as a centrepiece to his foreign policy. “Development assistance … can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world. That was true with the Marshall Plan, and that must be true today”, he averred.

In July 2008 Barack Obama called for a doubling of US aid as a centrepiece to his foreign policy. “Development assistance … can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world. That was true with the Marshall Plan, and that must be true today”, he averred.

“That’s why I’ll double our foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012, and use it to support a stable future in failing states, and sustainable growth in Africa; to halve global poverty and to roll back disease.”

The 44th President is to be lauded for his commitment to Africa but this plan for the continent’s renewal is misguided. Nearly all Western leaders revert to the same basic formula when confronted by Africa’s myriad problems: more money and more ambitious targets. Little if any evidence suggests that it works.   

US trade, investment and aid ties with Africa increased under President Bush. His administration believed that the US$1 billion Presidential Aids initiative (PEPFAR), the African Growth and Opportunity Act (now in its third iteration) and the Millennium Challenge Account, which by 2006 increased US aid to Africa by US$5 billion, would restore America’s standing in Africa.

If anything, over the past decade relations have deteriorated and Africans have become more wary of US intentions. The initial furore over the establishment of a US military command for the continent was a case in point, as was the protracted war of words over Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe, which many Africans perceived as neo-imperialist meddling by Washington.

The newly-inaugurated President Obama will have his work cut out for him to change African attitudes towards America. Yes, his immense personal appeal in the continent which claims him as one of its own is a distinct advantage.

But anti-US sentiment, frequently in evidence at the United Nations where African votes routinely go against the United States, is more deeply ingrained within Africa than even this cosmopolitan leader may appreciate.  

No one should thus pretend that a shift in strategy will be easy for Obama’s administration. As ever, much will be dependent on whether Africans themselves can tackle corruption and inefficiency within their own systems.

Perhaps the first – and best – thing his new administration in Washington can do for Africa is abandon, once and for all, the idea that development through foreign aid can work.

The continent urgently needs, instead, to be integrated with global markets in a way that encourages openness and better governance.

And in those parts of Africa emerging from conflict, the ‘economics’ of peace-building must be given far greater weight. Reconciliation and justice get all the attention but jobs and roads often are just as important to post-war stability.

At the international level, a new US approach should entail greater inclusiveness and multilateralism, especially in the reformulation of the UN Security Council.

This is not a sop to national egos but a recognition that more needs to be done to encourage collective responsibility. Whilst far from perfect, Liberia’s ongoing recovery process exemplifies the unique role of the United Nations in missions which require the kind of political legitimacy and consensus which no single nation, however mighty, can confer.

The same applies to regional powers. Locals generally know better, and have a greater stake in stability, so insofar as is feasible the new US administration must let them lead.

Civil wars are estimated to cost those states and the regions in which they occur nearly $10 billion annually, and they last for an average of seven years, each costing more than double today’s global aid budget. And without regional support, there is no way a political solution can stick.

President Obama has a number of tools at his disposal, including aid, to affect change within Africa but there are limits. Humanitarian assistance is often used as a stick against rogue regimes from Sudan to Zimbabwe.  

It is they, not Western donors, however, who usually prove more effective at manipulating food aid and the like to further their own political ends.  

One of the most powerful incentives in Washington’s armoury is its support for free trade. Not all African countries will be affected equally or always positively but overall the impact of freer trade will be beneficial to African economic systems.

In pressing for trade reform President Obama, together with liberals in Europe and further afield, must tackle the isolationists head-on.

Another key incentive which is consistently absent during presidential ‘safaris’ to Africa – designed more to boost the US ‘brand’ rather than learn what the continent really needs – is global business.

Africa’s problem is marginalisation and competitiveness; the continent requires more globalisation not less. Instead of an ever-expanding White House press corps filling seats on Air Force One, supinely waiting to record the next major aid package for Africa, Obama should give more seats to businessmen and women prepared to strike deals and exploit opportunities.  

And there are opportunities in Africa. It just needs better governance and more investment. President Obama may be in a better position to help than any of his predecessors. But less fanfare, please, and certainly not more pity.  
DR MILLS heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, created by the Oppenheimer family to strengthen African economic performance; Dr McNamee is a director of the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

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