A Call to Skepticism


George W. Bush is having fun in Africa. According to a recent Pew poll, he enjoys an overwhelming popularity on the continent, and, as the International Herald Tribune notes “with some [African nation] holding America in higher regard than America views itself.”

Look at all the great things the US has done for Africa:

“Yet since taking office, U.S. development aid to Africa has tripled, funding for HIV programs vaulted from under US$1 billion (€ 700,000) to over US$6 billion (€4 billion) per year and garment exports from Africa to America, helped by special trade deals, increased sevenfold, according to official U.S. statistics.

The Bush administration has, moreover, made Africa the centerpiece of its overall aid strategy. Twelve of the 15 focus countries receiving funding from the five-year, US$15 billion (€10 billion) President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are in Africa, as are nine of the 16 countries drawing grants from Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation […] “

But also, note that:

“Today, a fifth of U.S. oil imports come from a single African nation — Nigeria. By the end of the decade, one in five new barrels of oil entering the global market are projected to come from Africa, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.” (Source: IHT)

Interesting.

But behind the ceremonies honoring George W. Bush and American involvement in African affairs, behind all the pomp and hype, shouldn’t we exercise caution when judging the actions of the US – and the West in general – in Africa?

At some point, Western leaders will have to shift the loci of “cooperation” with Africa (and with the developing world in general) away from hand outs. What countries need is not another major grant that will end up being mismanaged and have relatively little impact on people’s welfare – they need Western leaders to encourage investors to work in those countries, to highlight the business and development opportunities, and to build healthy commercial, financial and economic ties with the private sector of developing nations. The meager handouts by the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) represent yet another attempt to impose a certain social, political and economic vision on nations that are construed as malleable. It does not represent a significant departure from previous development models devised by Western countries or their representative Bretton Woods institutions.

Furthermore, there are some fundamental issues with the way the MCC functions, in that it selectively engages with countries deemed “respectable” enough – ie. countries who have produced a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) with the World Bank, who are committed to a market economy, committed to democracy… It would be very naive to think that countries whose governments are desperate for funding aren’t simply jumping through the hoops imposed on them by outsiders.

In addition, note that these stringent conditions are imposed only on a certain group of non-Western developing nations. There are many countries which receive untied aid – Egypt and Israel, two of the largest recipients of US aid received $1.7 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively, in 2006. These countries receive these large sums of money unconditionally, and only very recently, with the events at the Gaza/Egypt border, has the US Congress suggested to tie its aid to Egypt to certain conditions.

How about countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo – a country the size of Western Europe – whose stability is key to the overall stability of the region? It’s hard to imagine that the DRC will be able to meet the required standards for Western aid in the near future, even though the government relies almost exclusively on foreign aid. The DRC’s government established a 2007-2011 program for reconstruction, with a budget reaching $14 billion. Half of this budget is expected to be provided by donors – but considering the track record of Western donors in that country, it’s almost certain that this budget is little more than wishful thinking: in 2007, the World Bank promised $380 million, and the EU 161 million euros…. Keep in mind that these figures don’t reflect actual disbursements – in 2006, the DRC had only received a 1/3 of the funds promised in 2004 and 2005 ($1.1 and 1.2 billion, respectively)

So congratulations Mr. Bush! $700 million for Tanzania. Way to go. Oh, and that $306 million to Benin promised in 2006 through the MCC? Which should be disbursed over…. 9 years? What a gesture.

The hypocrisy which shrouds the supposed benevolence of the US in Africa is appalling. The fight against HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria is crucial, and American financial involvement in this entreprise is certainly worthwhile, and commends respect. However, this generosity shouldn’t be considered independently from other policies which fuel increasing global inequalities, such as the much criticized subsidy program to the cotton industry in the United States, or the backward, racist and unfair immigration policies pursued by most of the Western world.

“President George W. Bush’s coming African tour will emphasise the caring side of U.S. policy but it is widely seen as being more about military interests, oil supplies and combating Chinese influence.” (Source: Reuters Africa)

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