Obama's Moral Obligation to Africa

March 4, 2009

Debark, Ethiopia
Photo by zz77 (CC)

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama spoke frequently of America's "moral obligation" to prevent humanitarian catastrophe. Nowhere is that obligation more obvious—or more in peril—than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Candidate Obama pledged to double U.S. aid to Africa by the end of his first term. While President Obama's just released 2010 budget request seemed to reaffirm this commitment, the document offered no details. Africa watchers remain cautiously optimistic, yet the fiscal constraints inherent in nearly $3 trillion in new U.S. borrowing seem likely to crimp the administration's aid plans.

As far back as October, Vice President Joe Biden conceded that the global economic crisis would force a "slow down" in the commitment to increase foreign assistance. In the intervening months, Congress authorized $700 billion in bank bailout funds and $787 billion as part of February's economic stimulus package. Add to that $1.2 trillion in new debt from the 2010 budget request, and it seems unlikely that anything more than token support will emerge for a boost in aid to a continent with a poor history of responsible financial stewardship.

This is a pity, because Obama is in a unique position to make a difference in Africa.

George W. Bush quietly made Africa a U.S. foreign policy priority, tripling aid and pursuing a host of ambitious and effective policies. These included the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which subsidizes anti-retroviral treatment for more than 2 million Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), renewed by Bush in 2004, grants 39 eligible African nations duty-free access to U.S. markets. The value of African exports to the United States increased by nearly 300 percent between 2001 and 2008.

Our Africa policy has never come so far so fast. The question is: How can we maintain the momentum? If we take our eye off the ball it will likely take years, if not decades, to regain this level of engagement. So here are some suggestions for President Obama and his Africa team:

Go to Africa

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with Obama's biography. As a first generation African-American he commands a political advantage never before available to an American president. There could be no stronger signal of American support for African development than an early first term presidential visit. Obama is considered a native son by Africans of every nationality. An appearance by the first African-American president would generate a level of euphoria only The Beatles in their heyday would recognize. But this would be a political euphoria, one that could be leveraged in support of long overdue policy reforms.

Clearly the president has a lot on his plate at the moment, but gestures like this have real impact. One need only consider Nixon's trip to China or John Paul II's visit to Poland for evidence of just how politically powerful an official visit can be.

Of course, grand gestures poorly thought out can do more harm than good. Bush's 2003 visit to Nigeria was widely perceived as lending legitimacy to Olusegun Obasanjo's disputed reelection.

But if he's going, Obama should not indulge in half-measures. In basketball terms, he'll need to "leave it all on the court." Why not pay a call on Nelson Mandela at his home in the Transkei and issue a public call for Robert Mugabe to step down as President of Zimbabwe? A joint appearance with the venerable anti-apartheid hero would not only be the photo opportunity of a lifetime, it would demonstrate the Obama administration's firm commitment to responsible stewardship and public integrity.

The president's travel agenda should include Pretoria, Gabarone, Abuja, Nairobi, and at least one francophone capital. At each stop he should outline America's commitment to African development while speaking in the bluntest terms possible about the urgency of reform.

"For the first time ever an American president can talk tough to African leaders and not be accused of being racist, and not be accused of being imperialist, colonialist," says Kenyan journalist Salim Amin.

Obama should use this bully pulpit to press South Africa and Nigeria to live up to their leadership claims on the continent, especially with regard to the conflicts in Darfur, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Emphasize Governance

Official development assistance is lovely and Africa certainly needs a lot of it, but the rich world has channeled over $600 billion in aid to Africa over the last 50 years with little noticeable effect on poverty rates.

There is a simple reason why: corruption.

Corruption is endemic across all levels of African society, undermining the rule of law and costing the continent billion upon billions of dollars each year in lost productivity. Funding meant for education, judicial reform, and infrastructure ends up in foreign bank accounts controlled by politicians and elites. Low pay and poor work conditions lead civil servants to supplement their earning through so-called "petty corruption." The African Development Bank estimates that 2-3 percent of household income in Africa is spent on bribes.

Of course, there is no way to measure the amount of capital that is not invested in African economies because of the presence of corruption. In this regard, corruption prevents individuals from exploring their full potential by trapping them in an environment of chronic underdevelopment.

President Obama must leverage his popular support on the continent to build a critical mass for reform. The Millennium Challenge Accounts established by Bush in 2004 reward countries for good governance, economic freedom, and investment in people. This program must be expanded and Obama should push congress to fund it in full.

Improving the quality of governance in Africa will require more than just a flashy whistle-stop tour. It will involve sustained effort and attention. Why not have U.S. ambassadors in Africa spread the word that future rounds of debt forgiveness will be tied to measurable progress toward transparency and integrity in government? Without these things, Africa will continue to languish in poverty and underdevelopment for another fifty years.

Tell China: "No More Mr. Nice Guy"

Okay, this is the hard one. China has been accused of undermining development and reform efforts in Africa by using aid to bolster and complement its own commercial interests while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses. Beijing has brokered arms and energy deals with the governments of Sudan and Zimbabwe, in defiance of international efforts to isolate and disarm these regimes. It has done all this while proclaiming it solidarity with Africa's struggle against Western imperialism.

In February, Chinese President Hu Jintao vowed to increase investment and aid to Africa despite the financial crisis—money that African governments are in no position to turn away.

No one wants a repeat of the Cold War scramble for influence in Africa, but it increasingly seems as if that ship has already sailed. Therefore, the United States must seek out and exploit its comparative advantage in the areas of democracy, human rights, press freedoms, civil society, rule of law, and similar types of intangible assistance.

There is every reason to believe that Africans, like people everywhere, hunger for these things. The United State can offer them to Africa—China can't.

Promote Connectivity

Here is the low-hanging fruit. Only 5 percent of Africans have access to the Internet and use it on a regular basis. Ending this virtual isolation from the world economy and the global commons of ideas is essential to Africa's development.

Encouraging the development of continent-wide broadband Internet connectivity will have numerous salutary effects in Africa. It will destroy government monopolies on all manner of information. It will improve the function of health care and education systems by providing immediate access to the vast libraries of collected human knowledge.

An undersea fiber-optic cable currently being laid in the Indian Ocean will soon link east Africa to the inland broadband networks of Asia. It is expected to cut bandwidth costs for some countries by up to 90 percent. However, similar cables in the western and southern portions of the continent have failed to deliver fast, cheap, and reliable service to Internet users in those areas. Why? Government monopolies, often preserved in the name of "national security," have inflated prices and allowed infrastructure to deteriorate.

During his visit, President Obama must impress upon African heads of state that only governments which are threatened by the free flow of information seek to regulate access to it. He must advocate for the quick and complete liberalization of information, communications, and technology markets in Africa. Absent deregulation, ordinary citizens will continue to be excluded from realizing the power and potential of the Internet era.

There will be some who say that none of this can be done, that all of these things have been tried, that Africa is doomed. Some will point to the crippling legacy of colonialism; some will argue that war, poverty, and disease are destined to plague the African continent for eternity. Still others will emphasize that until the fire in our own house is put out, we should be content to leave Africans to sort out their own problems.

But that's not what you said we should do. That's not what you promised we would do. If we take our moral obligations seriously then our policy choices must remain consistent with the political language we use. This unprecedented opportunity to arrest Africa's ongoing humanitarian catastrophe must not be squandered.

Go to Africa, Mr. President. And don't pull any punches.

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