Four Ways to Help Africa?

September 8, 2009

Supporting the achievement of sustained development and economic growth in Africa remains at the forefront of policy debates. However, it is imperative to maintain the fundamental objective of supporting economic development: lifting millions out of poverty and raising the overall human development rather than solely seeking political gain.

Jendayi E. Frazer, who served as an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (2005-2009), is well versed with the African socio-political landscape and has served the United States with distinction as a diplomat. She is also credited with a number of developmental initiatives that have been good for Africa—such as the Millennium Challenge Account and as a strong supporter of the war against HIV/AIDS. Thus, when she recently wrote an article on four ways to help Africa, those who know her and her work were keen to be enlightened by her insights. Unfortunately, in her rush to criticize the yet evolving President Obama’s Africa policy, Frazer largely deals with secondary issues and does not sufficiently address strategies or offer coherent insights to help Africa.

The title to Frazer’s (Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2009) article “Four Ways to Help Africa” is grossly misleading. A more accurate title would have been “Ways to Advance American Interests in Africa,” based on a careful reading of Frazer’s position. But even such a title would convey the wrong message as Frazer’s recommendations could be detrimental to American interests in Africa in the long-run.

Frazer observes that U.S. policy in Africa is not about love, but should be about advancing American interests. With this as a guiding principle, Frazer proposes policy instruments to achieve specific goals in line with those interests. Implicit in the proposals (and in the article’s title) is that achieving those American interests yields some positive benefits to Africans. However, an approach that is primarily driven by desire to advance American interests without concomitant consideration of the interests of Africans is unlikely to yield positive results and, ultimately, works against the long-term interest of America.

The strategies proposed by Frazer—holding of a Presidential summit at the White House with some African leaders, maintaining the African trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and re-locating U.S. African Command to Africa might associate with some salutary benefits to Africa. It is also correct that suppression of state sponsors of terrorism is of mutual interest to both Africa and the United States. To the extent that these policies may yield some benefits to Africans, such are byproducts rather than primary intent. Nevertheless, an instrumentalist approach such as suggested by Frazer largely ignores the primacy of the interests of Africans in building a relationship based on reciprocal expectations and glosses over the more important issues of poverty and development, which contribute so heavily to conflict on the continent and in the end undermine American interests.

So how can America help Africa?

Currently, most of the African states are classified as “fragile” and many rank high in the “failed states” index. It is such state weaknesses that create fertile ground to undermine American interests. Policies that strengthen African institutions of governance and also promote economic growth therefore represent the most durable strategy to combat terrorism and concurrently advance economic and social development in Africa.

It is through the promotion of trade and American investments that America can better strengthen her interests in Africa and allow Africa to “own” and “protect” American interests in a world of increased U.S.-African interdependence. American foreign direct investments (FDI) to Africa account for less than one percent of total American FDI which does not reflect high levels of commitment to promote economic growth in Africa. Thus, America can help Africa by building exchange relationships that increase interdependence rather than using policy instruments whose primary aim is to advance specific American interests with little regard to Africa’s interests.

On trade, while Frazer calls for protection of AGOA preferences, it should be noted that these preferences have had a rather limited impact. Ninety-seven percent of African exports to the U.S. are comprised of oil and other energy products. Maintaining the status quo is not doing enough to help Africa. Africa does not need preferences to export oil. America can help Africa by supporting investments in infrastructure and industry that promote economic transformation and consequential diversification.

Africans are keenly waiting for a clearly articulated America-Africa relationship under the Obama administration. While such a relationship must not jeopardize American interests and security, it should not relegate African interests to a largely inconsequential status. Instead, Africans hope that the relationship would be one that increases the opportunities for both Americans and Africans to engage in mutually beneficial transactions—trade, investments, education exchanges and tourism—the outcome of which is to advance peace, development and suppression of terrorism. This is the best and durable strategy to advance American interests and security.

In a relationship based on mutual interest and reciprocity, the policy instruments proposed by Frazer are only minor footnotes in a broader, more sustainable development agenda that should define American policy toward Africa.