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You are here: Home/News/Article/One year later: President Obama and US policy in Africa

One year later: President Obama and US policy in Africa

Published date:
Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The election of President Barack Obama resonated loudly throughout Africa. His victory raised expectations that Africa would assume a more prominent place in U.S. foreign policy. This was not in 2009 to be the case.

To its credit, the Obama Administration has in its first year done a good job reminding Africans of the challenges they face. In July, the President spent a day in Ghana and delivered strong messages in his Africa policy speech. He talked about importance of good governance, stronger institutions, and ending festering conflicts. The future, the President emphasized, depends on Africans taking charge of their continent’s future.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a seven nation African tour in August also spoke bluntly. Nigeria, she observed, is “a country that has the fifth-largest supply of petroleum and gas, so many riches, and yet the number of people living in poverty is growing. Nigeria is now further away from achieving the Millennium Development Goals than they were ten years ago. That is a travesty.”

What is missing from this dialogue are new solutions, which many expected from President Obama. The chief policy tools thus far advanced are continued support for development assistance and of Clinton- and Bush-era programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

While these programs have their merits, none of them are the answer to Africa’s lack of development. Indeed, in many ways development assistance may be part of the problem. From undermining local agricultures and the creation of corrupt, aid-dependent governments, foreign assistance has created perverse incentives that impede development. Far too many policies have failed to encourage the development of economic freedom that is the hallmark of genuine opportunity and prosperity.

Indeed, the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom concludes, based on analysis of 16 years of economic data and policies in more than 170 countries, that “Economic freedom is the indispensable link between economic opportunity and prosperity.” When one realizes that the overall level of economic freedom in Sub-Saharan Africa is weaker than that of any other region, it is not surprising that it continues to be poor and unstable despite receiving “more absolute foreign aid, both multilateral and bilateral, than any other region.”

And this is where Obama has fallen short. For the most part, he has not followed through on his Ghana challenge to African countries to take responsibility for their development. He continues to support the large increases in development assistance even though the trillions of dollars already provided to developing countries around the world have not demonstrably been shown to improve prospects for economic growth and development.

A long-overdue review of U.S. foreign assistance strategies is expected to be completed in 2010. But whether that review will fundamentally rethink America’s aid programs to promote good governance, the rule of law, and economic freedom is an open question. Moreover, the changes that are adopted will take years to be translated into legislation and programs. Meanwhile, U.S. foreign assistance as it is presently conceived and delivered will likely continue to disappoint.

The administration has, thankfully, decided to enforce AGOA’s governance standards and removed the eligibility of three countries where democracy broke down. This is a necessary and useful signal to send. However, the broader trade agenda, which could greatly aid Africa, has faltered. While promising greater access to the U.S. market under AGOA, the Administration has done little to convert AGOA into a true free trade agreement.

The security concerns of Africa also remain under-addressed. The Administration’s comprehensive review of Sudan policy, unveiled in October, promised equal emphasis on Darfur and the North-South peace accord with carrots and sticks for Khartoum. Criticized as largely repackaged Bush policies, it underscored the hope Sudan will move peacefully through national elections to the 2011 referendum on Sudanese unity. Yet, rising tensions may pull Sudan apart, creating a radical Islamist state in the north, a failed state in the south, and a fresh power struggle for Sudan’s oil wealth.

The Horn of Africa remains a cauldron of unanswered challenges – al-Qaeda, piracy, and humanitarian crises. The prospects for better governance in failing Zimbabwe remain distant and the Obama Administration has been unable to rally regional support behind genuine democratic change.

An increasingly rudderless Nigeria, a regional giant and home of the failed Christmas Day bomber, seems mired in a gathering political as well as social crisis.

Despite the development of a more robust AFRICOM, the Administration is taxed to develop strategies to counter the massive economic presence of China, the diplomatic and economic inroads of Iran, and the spread of terrorist networks and training camps south of the Sahara.

At the end of the Administration’s initial year in office, Africa policy challenges remain formidable, complex, costly, and dependent on that variable so accurately described in Obama’s Ghana speech: Africans taking charge of African solutions. It’s unfortunate that Obama has done so little so far to encourage them.

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