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Is African dream in Obama or McCain?

Published date:
Monday, 20 October 2008

President Obama. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue yet the way “Senator Obama” or simply “Barack Obama” now does. Nevertheless, there is a very good possibility that one year from now, we will be talking about “President Obama” and “the Obama administration” as if his election had always been inevitable. Perhaps never before has a U.S. presidential candidate captured the hearts and minds of so many people who cannot even vote for him – entrepreneurial Kampalans are now even making copycat Obama t-shirts, pins, bumper stickers and more to capitalize the hype surrounding the half-Kenyan, half-Kansan senator.

What exactly would an Obama presidency mean for Uganda and for Africa more generally? Or, if much to the chagrin of many Africans (though certainly not all, Obamamania is not universal) we are next year discussing the policies of President McCain, what would a Republican administration mean for the continent? There are many explanations for the widespread support, or even obsession, with Obama in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa. But for all the promise he may show for the U.S., a country whose reputation and power has withered away during the eight years spent under George W. Bush, it is not a given that he or McCain shows the same promise for Africa.

With the U.S. financial system in crisis and the economy in a tailspin, U.S.-Africa policy is unlikely to be on the top of the agenda of either McCain or Obama, barring some major threat in Africa to U.S. national security. Recently both men have been somewhat involved in U.S.-Africa relations, demonstrating at least a minimal level of political, economic and security issues on the continent, but neither could be considered an expert on Africa. And contrary to the ideas some Obama romanticists, having a Kenyan father does not automatically impart an understanding of Kenya, let alone the whole of the African continent.

Until recently, neither candidate had come out with a very detailed policy plan for U.S. relations with Africa, save for some discussion of the conflict in Darfur. But last month, foreign policy advisors from both the Obama and McCain camps spoke in Washington DC at the forum on “U.S.-Africa Policy Agenda and the Next Administration,” elaborating upon each of their Africa agendas.

J. Peter Pham of the McCain team praised several of the Bush administration’s policies and projects, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which gives grants to countries that meet certain targets for seventeen policy indicators, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), among others. He stated McCain’s plan to expand and improve these programs as well as McCain’s commitment to supporting democracy and the rule of law in African countries.

Witney W. Schneidman of the Obama campaign, amidst some rhetoric about Obama’s roots on the continent, outlined three fundamental objectives for policy on Africa under an Obama administration: “accelerate Africa’s integration into the global economy,” “enhance peace and security of African states,” and “strengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.” Mr. Schneidman also discussed the importance of the diaspora, PEPFAR and MCC, while introducing ideas for new programs and policies such as a Global Education Fund, Global Energy and Environment Initiative (GEE) and the Add Value to Agriculture Initiative (AVTA).

Even with the ubiquitous references to partnership and sustainability, and while all of these programs sound good in theory, many U.S.-Africa policies to date have not lived up to their grand expectations. Take the Ugandan experience for example with AGOA—meant to increase African exports, has been poorly utilized in Uganda and has not yielded the expected results. The Minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry (MTTI) has said that the problem in recent years can be found in “supply-side constraints”. Between 2003 and 2007 export earnings actually dropped, with Uganda’s performance falling by 33%. The explanations as to why this occurred are too many to cover here, but Uganda’s piddling budget for MTTI is perhaps a good indication of the amount of attention and resources that the government is willing to expend on the sector and contribute to the successful utilization of AGOA.

Obama and McCain may indeed want to foster productive “partnerships” with African governments on initiatives like AGOA, but they will have to be met at least halfway. Moreover, the underlying disconnect or lack of mutual understanding (however much the candidates say they “understand Africa”) will spell danger, if not disaster, for many U.S. programs and policies in Africa. This is a reality that many people even within the system fail to see. PEPFAR, for example, while providing anti-retroviral (ARVs) to thousands of Ugandans, has been a major contributor in the distortion of the health sector that has resulted from the influx of aid money for HIV/AIDS. However compassionate this “extremely important initiative,” as the Obama camp calls it, dictating the priorities of a foreign country’s health sector has serious and sometimes detrimental implications for the people of that country, who themselves have very little say in the matter.

Both Obama and McCain have laid out concrete plans for U.S.-Africa relations and policy, but neither makes a decisive change from the status quo, particularly regarding aid. This will likely mean that Africa can expect more of the same, perhaps with a few new programs sprinkled here and there. The money will continue to flow in, though it does not appear it will be used any more efficiently than it has thus far. Additionally, strict U.S. regulations often ensure that much of the money goes back to U.S. citizen employees and companies.

The recent economic crisis, which has been particularly hard-hitting on the U.S. economy, will also mean that it is in both candidates interest to focus on domestic policy. When American families are losing their homes and jobs, the “compassion” tends to fall by the wayside. Obama and McCain will need to urgently demonstrate their commitment and ability to improve the lives and livelihoods of the American people, and quite frankly, this is not widely perceived to involve Africa in any major way. But perhaps if this is the case, there will be an opportunity for local experts in fields such as health, education and infrastructure development, to begin calling the shots and be the ones to start making Africa-U.S. policy.

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