Making Africa a Priority in U.S. Foreign Assistance

David Gartner
David Gartner Former Brookings Expert

August 7, 2009

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits seven African countries, she will meet unbelievably determined people who are hoping that the United States will be a key partner for their prosperity. When Secretary Clinton returns to the United States, she will need to make critical decisions about how best to invest America’s development funding in the coming years. While Africa is now a much smaller priority for U.S. foreign assistance than it ought to be, Secretary Clinton can correct this imbalance as she finalizes her budget request for the coming year.

Although United States support for the least developed countries—most of which are in Africa—has increased in recent years, it still represents just over one-quarter of overall U.S. development assistance. The United States currently gives a smaller percentage of its development assistance to Africa than any of the world’s wealthiest nations. Greater targeting of U.S. resources toward the least developed countries could make an enormous difference in global progress toward the Millennium Development Goals by the target date of 2015.

One of the key areas where expanded U.S. investments in Africa could leverage overall development in the region is through increased investments in basic education. Currently, just over one-quarter of all U.S. funding for basic education is directed toward Sub-Saharan Africa, which holds nearly half of all children who do not get to go to school. Over half of U.S. basic education resources are currently sent to just four countries in the Middle East and South Asia, but only one quarter of these vital resources flow to the least developed countries that need the most support. Yet, relatively small investments in education in Africa can yield huge health and development returns.

In Africa, the children of mothers who receive five years of primary education are forty percent more likely to live beyond the age of five. Given that five million children in Africa die each year before reaching their fifth birthday, ensuring that their mothers get a basic education could literally save millions of children’s lives. These health effects are also multi-generational since the children of parents with such an education are much more likely to attend school themselves. Despite these impressive gains from education, currently just 4% of U.S. development assistance to Africa is directed to basic education.

When the United States has invested in a major way in Africa, it has yielded tremendous accomplishments. Recent research found that the United States helped to prevent 1.2 million deaths in Africa in just a few years through its efforts to provide AIDS treatment on the continent. A similarly ambitious initiative that leverages the support of other countries to ensure that every child gets the chance to go to school in the least developed countries could have no less dramatic effects. In Africa alone, if the 17 million girls currently out of school completed a full basic education, each one of their children would be twice as likely to live to go to school themselves.

In the coming weeks, Secretary Clinton will make key decisions about where Africa stands among America’s development priorities. Last year, the United States directed almost three-quarters of its resources to countries that are not among the poorest in the world. A greater focus on the least developed countries, especially those in Africa, would yield enormous progress toward reducing global poverty. Building on the secretary’s longstanding leadership on educating women and girls in Africa just might be the most leveraged development investment that America could make.