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Laura Seay: Old Ideas for the New Africa

June 26, 2012

Obama's "new" Africa policy prioritizes security over democracy. But the continent is changing rapidly, and U.S. policy needs to adapt--here's why.

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Image from Flickr via US Army Africa

By Laura Seay

This month, the Obama administration released a new policy document, “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa.” The strategy was mostly met in the African Twitter and blogospheres with a collective yawn. Why the disinterest? Because United States policy toward sub-Saharan Africa has changed very little in recent decades. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Obama administration’s new Africa policy is that they bothered to write it down.

The strategy outlines four pillars for American engagement with the continent’s governments and people: “1) strengthen democratic institutions; 2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; 3) advance peace and security; and 4) promote opportunity and development.” The strategy’s goals are not themselves objectionable. Who could possibly dispute the promotion of peace, development, and better public health?

The main problem with Obama’s new policy goal is that they focus on an Africa that increasingly no longer exists.

Nobody, that’s who. And perhaps that is the reason that U.S. Africa policy has been so remarkably consistent in its general themes and goals across presidential administrations, be they Republican or Democratic. The points in the document are not just recycled from Obama’s 2009 speech in Ghana (where he outlined a policy focused on strengthening democracy, promoting economic development, improving public health, ending and preventing conflict, and increasing cooperation with African states), they’re recycled from every American president’s Africa policy since the end of the Cold War.

Early on, the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations engaged in direct humanitarian intervention, but after the disaster in Somalia, the idea of deploying U.S. troops into combat on the continent became anathema. Instead, U.S. foreign policy has relied on these key areas of engagement, with varying degrees of emphasis depending on each particular president’s interests. Between administrations, more funding may be allotted to one area than another–combating HIV/AIDS was a high priority for the George W. Bush administration, while Obama’s State Department has channeled millions of dollars to fight sexual and gender-based violence—but the basics remain the same.

The main problem with Obama’s new policy goals is that they focus on an Africa that increasingly no longer exists. Africa today–especially urban Africa–is an incredibly vibrant place in which life is rapidly changing across socioeconomic strata. Smartphones, tablets, and access to 3G internet connections are spreading across the continent, and a quickly growing middle class in places like Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana eagerly purchases iPhones and Androids.  Africans are escaping poverty by the millions by starting businesses, hiring competent workers, and innovating at every level. From Uganda, where men who worked as Iraq war contractors to pay for fleets of vehicles now have thriving taxi businesses, to Nairobi and Johannesburg, where armies of technology developers are creating new mobile health applications, Africa is on the move.

This reality is almost entirely absent in Obama’s Africa strategy, which reads like a litany of the continent’s well-known challenges. To be sure, poverty, war, and limited opportunities are still problems for millions of people on the continent. But increasingly, these are not the realities the vast majority of Africans know. Africa is more peaceful today than it has been in the last twenty years; seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies are on the continent; and incredibly creative individuals are using their talents to create their own opportunities.

The most encouraging part of the Obama strategy is without question pillar two, which lays out a vision of what is commonly known as “trade-not-aid” for the continent. Aid is only mentioned once in the strategy, reflecting an emerging international consensus that foreign aid, while it may have a role, is not nearly as capable of lifting people out of poverty as are factors like increased investment, improved access to global markets, and lower trade barriers.

Yet, here, too, it almost feels as though the Obama administration is playing catch-up with an Africa that has moved on. To be sure, aid is still important in vulnerable areas–ask the Congolese mothers who are able to deliver their babies safely in hospitals thanks to European Union funds–but most Africans whose lots have improved in the last decade have not done so because they benefited from foreign aid-funded projects.

Obama’s new strategy does name some policy shifts that were already clear to most observers—for example, the “peace and security” pillar includes counter-terrorism activities against al Qaeda affiliates. But this emphasis actually presents a conflict of interest with the point on which the Obama administration Africa strategy should be strongest: promoting democracy. As Howard French aptly noted in The Atlantic, the commitment to promoting democratic ideals rings hollow for many young Africans. They know that their longstanding dictators will remain in office so long as they cooperate with the United States in fighting terrorism. Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni both enjoy strong American support despite being about as undemocratic as leaders can be–Ethiopia just banned the use of Skype and other internet-based phone services so as to maintain tight control over communications in the country.  Why will the U.S. not challenge these rulers, both of whom have served far longer than their countries’ constitutions originally allowed? Because both are key partners in combating the al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab, the group responsible for the 2010 World Cup bombings in Kampala which now controls much of southern Somalia. Stemming al Shabaab’s influence is important, but so is ensuring Ugandans’ and Ethiopians’ right to democratic government. As French notes, it has become clear that democracy is only a real U.S. priority “when it is convenient.”

Though there is not yet solid public opinion data to support this claim, it is evident to casual observers that support for Obama across the African continent has fallen as his administration has progressed. Very few Africans see themselves as having benefitted from his administration. While some of the hopes for Obama’s presidency were unrealistic (e.g., some rural Western Kenyans of his father’s Luo ethnic group thought they would easily be able to get visas to relocate to the United States simply on the basis of kinship), others were more grounded, with the view that Africa might be a higher priority for this president than it had been in previous decades.  These hopes have been largely dashed. Meanwhile, other of the president’s actions, especially his support for same-sex marriage and the lifting of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy have offended many in what are largely conservative cultures where homosexuality is seen as a Western cultural import.

Africa is on the move and, whether it is a priority or not, will be far more important to policy makers of the future than it has been in the past…

The specter of China looms large in the discussion of foreign powers’ policies toward Africa; with a focus on infrastructure development, business investment, and cooperation rather than coercion, the Chinese alternative to the old Western aid model has thus far proved far more attractive to many African governments.

Does Chinese engagement benefit African populations? It is far too soon to really know the answer to this question. When Chinese development started in Africa, there were widespread complaints that the projects did not hire locals. The Chinese have certainly learned from their mistakes, and this complaint is no longer entirely true. Still, there are problems with the Chinese model, no doubt. The jobs for which Chinese investors hire Africans tend to be extremely low wage and labor intensive (a Congolese laborer paving roads in the DRC can expect to earn three to four dollars per day for backbreaking work), the work comes with no strings attached, no nagging about long tenures in office, and no obligations to pay lip service to democratic ideals. Whether average Africans will benefit from this sort of “development” remains to be seen.

Africa policy is also generally a very low priority for most administrations, but this too will have to change. It is not a coincidence that the Obama administration’s Africa strategy was released halfway through the last year of his term in office, a sure signal that Africa is far from being high atop the administration’s priority list—this is an unwise stance. Africa is on the move and, whether it is a priority or not, will be far more important to policy makers of the future than it has been in the past, if for no other reason than that the U.S. now imports about the same amount of oil per year from the continent as from the Persian Gulf states.

The Obama administration’s Africa strategy is largely a disappointment because it is too easy; it lacks creative thinking about the continent’s future and focuses too much on the challenges of the past.  This is a time not to reiterate the same points over again, but rather to plan policies that will actively engage Africa’s new reality.

Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College. Her research focuses on community responses to state fragility in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somali piracy, and the effects of U.S. policies designed to mitigate the effects of conflict in the DRC, Uganda, and the Central African Republic.

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3 comments for Laura Seay: Old Ideas for the New Africa

  1. Comment by moa on June 26, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    You asked “Why will the U.S. not challenge these rulers?” It is the people of Ethiopia that must challenge Melse, if they wish. You suggest the old way of Western superiority that will never work.

  2. Comment by Michael Hill on June 27, 2012 at 10:26 am

    It is far too glib to say that “most Africans whose lots have improved in the last decade have not done so because they benefited from foreign aid-funded projects.” That might be true in a simplistic, direct way, but how would the economies that have lifted up these people be doing if they were still under the burden of HIV/AIDS that has been alleviated by PEPFAR and the Global Fund? Or if aid has not been fighting other diseases like malaria and TB? Much of the work of today’s foreign aid is to develop better agriculture, increase access to markets, encourage saving and investment, as well as improve education — all of which are the foundations of economic growth. So while Seay might be right when she says that the economic improvements do not seem to be the direct result of foreign aid, such aid has helped lay the cornerstones on which this progress has been built.

  3. Comment by james on March 28, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    What a sad, pathetic review. First, it is hugely significant that a strategy is even written down. Until 2000, U.S. policy toward Africa arguably did not exist in any coherent sense. There was no single framework. Writing it down is what makes this review even possible. Second, there is plenty that is new in the policy for people who pay attention to how the U.S. Government operates. And taken in a larger context – that State now oversees USAID and that AFRICOM now actually exists – there has been, in a very short time, a seachange in how the U.S. addresses African issues, African governments, African business and African people (as wide-angle as saying that may be – the fact is, each country has its separate issues and should be dealt with on its own terms). But what we get here is “nothing has changed, keep on moving folks”. Sad, a disservice to anyone new to the issue and simply leading those with knowledge to shrug at the simpletons in academia.

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