A Reality Check on African Aid

President Bush’s trip to Africa has rightfully been welcomed in the region.  Under his administration, U.S. economic assistance has more than doubled and has been targeted, with some success, towards HIV/AIDS and malaria—diseases that take a terrible toll on Africa.  But before giving the President too much credit for these developments, it is worth a reality check to put these accomplishments into perspective.

Take the increase in aid to Africa.  Between 2000 and 2006, U.S. economic aid to sub-Saharan Africa increased from $2.1 billion to $5.4 billion (in constant terms).  That is commendable.  But it is also the case that Africa has become the focus of aid efforts by the global development community and aid from many other countries has also gone up, in some cases by even more.  European Union countries, for example, gave $21.9 billion to Africa in 2006—four times as much as the United States.  The United Kingdom on its own gave $5.2 billion to Africa, almost the same amount as the United States from a country whose economy is one-sixth the size.

In some cases, money has been promised to Africa but cannot be spent because of bureaucratic obstacles.  One of the first compact programs signed by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, President Bush’s flagship new aid agency, was with Madagascar for $110 million to be disbursed over four years.  That compact is now finishing its third year.  As of November 2007, it had only disbursed $23 million in total, or about 21 percent of the total planned for disbursement for the four years.

It is not that the United States cannot afford to give more.  The sad fact is that more money was given by the United States in economic assistance to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006—more than $6 billion—than to all the 45 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put together.  And that may even understate the case; $1.3 billion in aid to Africa is in the form of food aid, a form of assistance which is so questionable in terms of its impact on development that several large U.S. charities, including CARE, have stopped dealing with it. 

But surely one can at least be proud of the focus of the U.S. aid effort in combating priority health needs?  Even here, the verdict is mixed.  Health is a major concern of Americans, and hence it is easy to get domestic support for health-related aid.  But it is much less of a priority for Africans themselves.  Afrobarometer, the leading source of data on public attitudes in Africa, has conducted polls in 7 of the top 10 African countries which are major recipients of U.S. aid, asking thousands of Africans their views on the most important development issues.  Respondents in these countries—Zambia, Mozambique, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda—systematically said that their priorities for development were for more jobs, better incomes, support for agriculture, and improvements in basic infrastructure like roads, power, water and other infrastructure.  Improving health, and more specifically dealing with AIDS, came low on the list, with only 7% mentioning health, disease or AIDS as the top development priority and less than one-third putting it in the top three priorities.  Health—broadly defined—only cracked the top three priority list in Uganda and Tanzania, and even there the main priority—either infrastructure or the economy—received more than twice the responses as health.   Unfortunately, U.S. assistance in these other, priority categories has declined.

So while we should celebrate the U.S. contributions to Africa, we should also keep in mind the fact that it is Europe, not the United States, that is leading the international fight against African poverty.  The United States can do much more to increase the level and effectiveness of its aid to Africa.  It can allocate a greater share of aid to Africa which is the poorest continent and which faces the greatest development challenges.  A target of at least 40%—about what the Europeans give—would be reasonable.  It can shift resources from food-aid, which has above-market pricing and caters as much to domestic farm interests as to development, towards priority funding for infrastructure, agriculture and economic improvements.  In programs like the Millennium Challenge compacts, which do respect local priorities, it should focus heavily on implementation and develop more realistic timeframes so that countries can actually use the promised money.  That would be a legacy of assistance that the whole world would welcome.