Smart Aid and Accelerated Growth: What an Obama Victory Can Mean for Africa

Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph
Richard Joseph Professor Emeritus - Northwestern University, Former Brookings Expert

October 24, 2008

Editor’s Note: In a speech delivered before the Department of Political Science, Faculty of the Social Sciences at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria prior to the U.S. presidential election, Richard Joseph reflects on what a win by Barack Obama could mean for Africa, with regard to aid and smart growth.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you in the Faculty of the Social Sciences, University of Ibadan (UI), where I served as a Lecturer in Political Science, 1976-1979. If Senator Barack Obama and his running-mate, Senator Joe Biden, succeed in the November 4 elections, their victory will represent an unprecedented opportunity for Africa. This talk was written with that prospect in mind, although I am aware that the apparent course of history could be thwarted. I was a member of this Faculty when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Nigeria during the first state visit of an American president to Africa. His successors, especially Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, while in office made several visits to Africa. Following their presidencies, Jimmy Carter has been deeply involved in peace, democracy, health, and agriculture programs in Africa, and so also has Bill Clinton in the areas of health and development.[1]

The election of Senator Barack Obama as U.S. president would be unparalleled in its potential significance for Africa. Jimmy Carter, in his single term as president, 1976-1980, was unable to do much for Africa. I believe he would have expedited the end of apartheid had he been elected to a second term. His successor, Ronald Reagan, showed little interest in Africa. In fact, Congress, by overruling his veto in 1986 of an anti-apartheid sanctions bill, hastened the collapse of the Afrikaner regime. President George H.W. Bush emulated Reagan in limiting engagements in Africa which was tragically reflected in U.S. inaction to prevent Liberia spiraling into fifteen years of war and mayhem. President Bill Clinton, during his first term, was a more active presence in Africa and became very popular throughout the continent. However, apart from diplomatic initiatives, he did not promote a vigorous American engagement to tackle the continent’s numerous problems. The U.S. refusal to intervene to halt the Rwanda genocide of 1994 remains a blot on the foreign policy legacy of his Administration, in contrast to the strategic role it played in ending the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.

Responsibility for the failed international action in Somalia, led by U.S. troops, is widely shared. By pulling American forces out of Somalia in March 1994 after a score of American soldiers were brutally killed in October 1993, the United States signaled the limit to the sacrifices it was prepared to shoulder to contain African humanitarian catastrophes. Perhaps the most significant achievement of the Clinton Administration was the creation of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act of May 2000 which widened opportunities for African products to enter the American market. President George W. Bush began his first term replicating the same pattern of limited interest and engagement in Africa. This pattern changed markedly, however, during the last six years of his tenure, and he oversaw the creation of major programs with significant African components, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) for development assistance.

Unique among his predecessors, however, as U.S. President Barack Obama would begin his tenure with a good understanding of the African predicament. Here is an excerpt from an address he delivered at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in August 2006:

For all the progress that has been made, neither Kenya not the African continent has yet fulfilled its potential. Like many nations across this continent, where Kenya is failing is in its ability to create a government that is transparent and accountable, one that serves its people and is free from corruption… Corruption corrodes the state from the inside out, sickening the justice system until there is no justice to be found, poisoning the police forces until their presence becomes a source of insecurity rather than a source of security. In the end, if the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists, to protect them and to promote their common welfare, all else is lost. This is why the struggle against corruption is one of the great struggles of our time.

In keeping with previous U.S. presidential elections, Africa has featured minimally in the 2008 campaign. In a September 10 interview on one of the popular late-night television programs, moderated by David Letterman, Senator Obama was asked about the many crises in Africa. He spoke of the opportunities for progress. When pressed further, he made the following pointed remarks:

What is true is that we’ve got to get better governance in Africa. We sometimes spend so much time running down government that we forget what it means, how important it is to have a functioning government, one that can deliver services. So that if you want to get a telephone you don’t have to pay a bribe, or if you want to start a business you don’t have to give a cut to somebody. Hopefully we can keep governments there more accountable so people can have a chance.

Further along in the interview, he proceeded to state clearly how this perspective would influence the policies of his Administration towards Africa and other areas:

I think if we send a signal, to Africa or the Middle East or anywhere in the world: We want to be a partner with you, we respect you. But if you are getting our help, we have certain expectations. We expect to see results on the ground. We are not just helping the wealthy and people who will send the money to Swiss banks. Hold people accountable but be respectful. I believe that can make a difference.

I was delighted to hear and transcribe these comments. It is seldom the case that American political leaders, especially presidential candidates, acknowledge publicly the connections between governance deficits, institutional weaknesses, and the difficulty of making economic and social progress in Africa — even when abundant financial resources are available from commodity exports, development aid, and family remittances. During the second U.S. presidential debate on October 7, 2008, the topic of Africa was brought up just once. Predictably, it was about Africa as a distressed continent. The moderator asked the candidates what principles would guide each of them in deciding whether to commit U.S. military forces to tackle humanitarian crises that do not directly affect American security (such as Rwanda when threatened with genocide, the intensifying conflicts in eastern Congo, where four to five million people have already died since 1997, and Somalia where militias prevail and there is no state). Senator Obama responded by citing the case of Darfur, Sudan, where the African Union has a peace force engaged under U.N. auspices and where the U.S. could lead the imposition of a no-flight zone.

I am citing these examples to show the limited focus on Africa in American political affairs. When the continent is mentioned in presidential campaigns and debates, it is usually in a circumscribed way and overwhelmingly focused on Africa as an arena of crises and catastrophes. Seldom does Africa’s positive significance come up: as a source of important commodities and minerals, as a growing trading partner, as an arena of political and economic renewal, as including several countries characterized by inter-religious concord and moderate Islam, as the place of origin of not just established but new and dynamic diasporas, as a partner in tackling climate change, food production, and energy security, and as the nursery of so much of the world’s cultural production.

In addition to Senator Obama’s personal knowledge and awareness of Africa as an important arena in all these regards, if elected president, he will come to office backed by the most comprehensive effort ever undertaken by an American presidential candidate to prepare for the domestic and foreign policy challenges awaiting his administration. Teams of experts have been working for well over a year now on these issues and in distilling policy recommendations. However, the expectations awaiting the next U.S. president are sky-high, especially in light of the many armed conflicts and tensions throughout the world and the current global financial calamity. Even with the best intentions, Africa will struggle for attention among the many areas in the world that require urgent action on the part of the U.S. government, in association with African and other international partners. On the basis of my many years of involvement in African affairs, and my direct engagement in Nigeria and other countries, I wish to explore with you some aspects of what this historic event in American and global history can mean for Africa. Colin Powell, while endorsing Senator Obama for president, said that his election would have an electrifying effect on America and on the world. In Africa, the bolt of electricity that will pass through each of us, and through our nations, will provide the most uplifting experience we have had since Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 a totally free man after 27 years of imprisonment.

On the occasion of this visit to Nigeria, I am participating in three other events: the 14th annual Nigerian Economic Summit; a seminar at the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in Abuja to launch a book I have co-edited with Alexandra Gillies, Smart Aid for African Development (Lynne Rienner Publishers)[2]; and a review exercise for the pioneering Research Alliance to Combat HIV/AIDS, jointly conducted by the University of Ibadan and Northwestern University. All three of these activities are highly pertinent to the pattern of engagement to be encouraged between the United States and Africa during a prospective Obama Administration. At the Economic Summit, I delivered two plenary addresses: “Transformation and High Sustained Growth: Governance and Public Service in Nigeria” and “Changing the Nigerian Mindset: Accelerating the Creation of Enterprise Societies”. The texts of these talks are available for consultation on the website of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, so I will restrict myself here to the main points made.[3]

It was as a member of this Faculty from 1976 to 1979 that I achieved a fundamental understanding about the governance and institutional challenges facing Nigeria and other African countries, and which has inspired much of my academic and collaborative work since then. One of the contributing authors to Smart Aid, Professor John Ohiorhenuan, now at the United Nations Development Program, was a former colleague of mine when he taught in UI’s Department of Economics. REACH, a program in UI’s Faculty of the Social Sciences, was conceived during a meeting convened by Professor Adigun Agbaje, the current Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), in his capacity as Dean of the Faculty in February 2004. I will discuss REACH, Smart Aid, and a new project, ACCESS, currently being designed, while connecting them to opportunities for Africa in the event of an electoral victory for Senators Obama and Biden.

Smart Growth

The World Bank recently raised its benchmark for people living in abject poverty to those earning less than $US1.25 per day. Previously it was $1 per day. But that has little impact on the situation in Africa. The proportion of poor people in sub-Saharan Africa has remained virtually unchanged at approximately 50% for the past three decades. Today, that number is an estimated 380 million, roughly equivalent to the number of persons China has lifted from poverty over the same period. We also know that the most efficacious way to reduce poverty is through economic growth. The challenge for Nigeria, and most of Africa, is to maintain economic growth at seven percent or more for at least a decade. Such a target would be difficult at any time. In today’s very unstable global economy, it will be extremely difficult to accomplish.

But there’s no choice but to pursue this overriding goal. Reflecting the emerging consensus on such issues, the Brookings Institution, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has launched an Africa Growth Initiative.[4] As a Brookings non-resident Senior Fellow, I have taken initial steps to design a companion project entitled “Accelerating the Creation of Enterprise Societies” or ACCESS. In my presentations at the Economic Summit, I spelled out the initial objectives of ACCESS. One fundamental dimension is the need to foster enterprise societies in Africa which I define as “a social collectivity in which the national political leadership, and a wide array of business and social entities, work cooperatively to devise and implement strategies for sustained growth and development”. Nigeria, like several other African countries such as Kenya and the Ivory Coast, has long had the resources to create such societies. Even Zimbabwe, which is now experiencing total economic collapse, was a fairly well-endowed country when the Mugabe government took over in 1980.

An incoming Obama/Biden government can include as a component of U.S. policy the ideas of the Africa Growth Initiative and ACCESS and build on some of the positive actions of the George W. Bush Administration as reflected in the Millennium Challenge Account. We have always known that Nigeria has the potential to achieve high economic growth and also serve as a motor of development for the sub-region. Nigeria’s production of oil and gas, and that of the countries around the Gulf of Guinea, are crucial for the U.S. and a number of other countries. Nigeria is fourth on the list of exporters of petroleum to the United States. Its untapped potential in agriculture and fisheries, and as a large consumer market that will approach 200 million in another twelve to fifteen years, renders it of high significance as a trading partner. We also know of the great entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians. This is a propitious moment to throw off the shackles of misrule, lack of transparency, weak accountability, and a deficient institution-building culture and place Nigeria at the forefront of a new and sustained wave of economic growth with equity. I am inviting colleagues to join in formulating and elaborating such a “smart growth” project just as we did successfully with the publication of Smart Aid. In pursuing smart growth, a different Nigeria must emerge. The second session in which I spoke in Abuja on October 22 focused on the Nigerian “mindset”. We greatly need a Nigeria of dynamic but honest entrepreneurs. I look forward to continuing my engagement with Nigerians, in the context of the Africa Growth Initiative and ACCESS, and hopefully under the umbrella of an Obama/Biden Administration.

Global Smart Aid

In response to demands from African leaders, notably former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Thabo Mbeki, and current Presidents Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria – and widening concerns about slow growth and persistent poverty in Africa – former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown launched an effort to ramp up development aid to Africa. The mechanism created for this initiative was the Commission for Africa whose recommendations were presented to, and approved by, the G-8 Meeting of major industrialized nations in Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005. A number of Africa experts, including myself, were not convinced that rapidly increasing aid to Africa, without corresponding changes in governance and institutional structures, would achieve the desired development objectives. The book, Smart Aid for African Development is the result of our collaborative reflections.

Its publication could not be more timely, given that the resources needed to meet the Gleneagles commitment of doubling aid to Africa by $US25 billion a year between 2005 and 2010, and a further $25 billion between 2010 and 2015, were not forthcoming even before the current global financial crisis. And it should be borne in mind that annual aid to Africa had already doubled from $12.7 billion to $23.7 billion in 2003. So what was agreed at Gleneagles was essentially to complete the quadrupling of aid to Africa during the first decade of the 21st century, and to add a further 50% increase by 2015. Anyone wishing to understand the complexity of the “aid business” in Africa, and why it so often compounds rather than alleviates the well-known problems of the continent, should get hold of a copy of Smart Aid which is being launched in Nigeria this week and in England next week. Nigeria is not a typical aid-dependent country. Yet Thomas Callaghy, in a fascinating chapter in the book on how the collaborative effort to bring about a dramatic reduction in Nigeria’s international debt was achieved in early 2006, covers one of the critical ways in which Nigeria has benefited from the aid system. What remains to be seen is how much Nigeria is fulfilling its part of the compact behind that debt-reduction exercise, by using the resources freed up for infrastructural and socio-economic development.

One of the promises made by Senator Obama during his campaign is that, under his presidency, the U.S would increase its contributions to foreign aid. When his running-mate, Senator Biden, was subsequently asked during the debate between vice-presidential candidates on October 2nd which items an Obama/Biden Administration would cut from its plans in view of the global financial crisis, he mentioned the promise to increase foreign aid. Under President George W. Bush, the United States has significantly increased its foreign aid contributions. Nigeria has benefited from the important program, the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which is directed in Nigeria by my colleague Professor Robert Murphy of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Another remarkable chapter in Smart Aid was written by Professor Carol Lancaster of Georgetown University, in which she shows how complicated the aid structures and processes have become in the United States.

For many Americans, even students of international relations, it will be an eye-opener what an unwieldy system has been created. Smart Aid provides an Obama/Biden Administration, and other major aid donors, the framework to pursue smarter, not just bigger aid, the title of a chapter in our book by the UK-based scholar, Paolo de Renzio. I also hope that we can begin shifting the center of development debates, where appropriate, from aid to Africa to support for Africa. The questions to be encouraged include: Which Africa must be supported? Which activities, processes, policies, and institutions should be encouraged?

By promoting smarter growth through the creation and consolidation of enterprise societies, the emphasis would shift from current practices that have deepened aid dependency. A High Level Forum organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Accra, Ghana, September 2-4, 2008 took up the issue of aid effectiveness. Following that conference, media commentaries focused mainly on one aspect of the problem: the need to simplify the mechanisms of transferring aid to Africa. As Joel Barkan demonstrates in his Smart Aid chapter on budget support, simply transferring funds to the central budget of African governments, which accounts in some cases for 40% of their operating budgets, can accentuate many of the governance problems the aid donors have repeatedly made commitments to eliminate. Nigeria can lead the shift in emphasis in international financial transactions with Africa from that of providing more and more aid to accelerating and strengthening investments, trade, and capacity building. In brief, we need to hear more about support for Africa. And when we must speak of aid, outside of humanitarian and military/security arrangements, let us emphasize smart aid and what can be one of its primary objectives: economic growth that is environmentally sustainable, increases productivity and employment, and seeks to lift all boats from distress and dependency.

REACH: An Emerging Model of Research Cooperation

In my first address at the Economic Summit, I listed a number of items that could be included in a Nigerian project to achieve high sustained and quality growth. One of these is massively increasing investments in health and education. The mission of REACH is to improve HIV/AIDS prevention strategies in Nigeria through social science and community-based research. In 2009, we hope to convene a symposium in Nigeria centered on the work of REACH, the programs overseen by Professor Robert Murphy in Nigeria, and other AIDS-related initiatives with a strong capacity-building component. I will summarize briefly why REACH is so pertinent to a smart growth agenda of entrepreneurship, productivity, and equity.

  • REACH is a multiyear collaborative program between two major universities, Northwestern University and the University of Ibadan. We hope to bring other institutions of higher education into this research alliance. In an essay published in 2003 before I joined Northwestern, I called for the creation of “smart partnerships”.[5] REACH has, in fact, become such a partnership.
  • In my distinguished lecture in this Faculty on “Misgovernance and the African Predicament: Can the Code Be Broken?” on November 30, 2006, I cited the work of the late sociologist, Charles Tilly, on the importance of trust networks to the accomplishment of “consequential enterprises.” By working together to overcome all the challenges encountered, REACH is becoming a trust network that includes a growing number of Nigerian researchers, government officials, community leaders, and American scholars and policy experts.
  • We have to move from abstract and general principles to the pursuit of good governance and capacity building in specific contexts. In REACH we deal daily, not abstractly, with those challenges. After a three-year gestation period, we can say that a new institution has been brought into existence, and that it is as efficiently, transparently, and accountably managed as it is possible to do in the context of the difficult operational challenges of contemporary Nigeria.
  • Nigeria cannot achieve high sustained economic and employment growth without major advances in its health and education systems. REACH simultaneously tackles an infection responsible for sickness and death of millions, while seeking to improve the research skills of many Nigerians. A successful REACH will not only provide a model that can be emulated elsewhere in Nigeria, but would also send a powerful message of what can be accomplished in these two critical areas of socio-economic development.
  • In view of the dire consequences of what I have at times called “catastrophic governance” in Africa, there is an urgent search for formulas of what can work, where, when, why, and how. The ACCESS project I hope to help establish will seek to catalyze thinking on how African countries can experience high sustained, and environmentally sustainable, growth with equity. Harvard economist Dani Rodrik contends that central to this transitional process is the emergence of effective institutions that can serve the public interest.[6] In a relevant article by human rights scholar and activist Alex de Waal, entitled “How will HIV/AIDS transform African governance?”, he argues that post-colonial Africa has been constrained in confronting challenges such as this pandemic because of the loss of the capacity to establish and maintain complex institutions.[7] We must therefore seek to nurture this capacity in all areas of public and private life. Universities are key institutions of development in any society. They are complex institutions composed of a web of institutions. The Faculty of the Social Sciences of the University of Ibadan is one such institution, and within it are others, such as REACH. One measure of our success will be whether an article can be written one day entitled: “The REACH Experience: Improving African Governance and Combating HIV and AIDS”.

Towards Smarter Growth in Nigeria

To cite a recent essay in Foreign Affairs by former U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who served in senior positions in the Clinton Administration, the next U.S. Administration will be confronted by the greatest set of challenges faced by any American government since World War II.[8] That essay was written before the recent meltdown of the global financial system. The Brookings Institution recently issued a list of the ten most important global issues that will confront the next U.S. president.[9]

1. Restoring Financial Stability.
2. Setting the Right Green Agenda.
3. Exercising Smart Power.
4. Reimagining Global Trade.
5. Navigating China’s Rise.
6. Deciphering “Russia, Inc.”.
7. Engaging an Emerging India.
8. Revitalizing Ties to Latin America.
9. Supporting Africa’s Growth Turnaround.
10. Pursuing a Positive Agenda for the Middle East.

I like the way the Africa item is phrased: “Supporting Africa’s Growth Turnaround”. There is, of course, a vast humanitarian, security, and development agenda to be confronted in Africa. I have developed my own twelve-point list of critical challenges facing just Nigeria during the next decade:

1. Strengthening the institutions of a capable state under a democratic constitution.
2. Advancing transparent, honest and accountable governance.
3. Achieving sustainable growth with equity.
4. Improving power, transportation, and water systems.
5. Strengthening health and education systems.
6. Improving policing and the security of persons and property.
7. Engaging the Diaspora dynamically.
8. Fostering an institution-building culture in all sectors.
9. Moving to the forefront on environmental and climate change issues.
10. Instituting an efficient and reliable electoral system.
11. Diminishing the conflicts in the oil-producing Delta.
12. Overhauling the management of the oil and gas sector.

Positive and collaborative action by the next U.S. president, in association with other world leaders, can help mitigate these challenges. The financial crisis, however, will limit the amount of resources that the U.S. government, and any government for that matter, can provide for development assistance to Africa. Nevertheless, in this crisis lies an opportunity that should be seized in Nigeria. A recent turnaround has indeed occurred in many African countries, as the Brookings announcement states, from economic decline and stagnation to renewed growth. In the case of Zambia, foreign investment has reportedly increased from $255 million in 2003 to $4 billion in 2008.[10] This upswing cannot be allowed to falter. Economic renewal, the emergence of new democracies, and the ending of armed conflict in several countries (Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone, and South Africa), have been major achievements since 1990. As demonstrated by the famine conditions in the Horn of Africa, the violent conflicts in Somalia and Sudan, the continued meltdown of Zimbabwe under an intransigent Mugabe regime, and another cataclysmic upheaval in Congo, hope and horror still move in lockstep in sub-Saharan Africa. In all this, sight should not be lost of a fundamental challenge that cuts across all countries: the unmet challenge of reducing mass poverty through accelerated growth with equity.

Expectations will be very high of Senator Obama in the event he is elected U.S. President. The problems his Administration will inherit globally and domestically are immense, and his time in office will go by relatively quickly. Nigeria has the opportunity to be regarded as one of the countries in which important political and economic advances can be made and which, in so doing, can look to the U.S., and other major powers, for assistance to support a smart growth strategy. As U.S. president, Barack Obama cannot do for Africa what it will not do for itself. That goes without saying. If we have reason to rejoice on November 5 after the votes have been counted, let us return immediately to work, inspired by his personal example of how great hurdles can be overcome.

The dire challenges confronting Nigeria listed earlier are all amenable to resolution and progress if Nigeria’s vast human and capital resources are efficiently marshaled. In such ventures, strategic assistance can be procured from partners in the Global North and South. The motto that Obama adopted, “Yes We Can”, from the Mexican American farm-workers leader, Cesar Chavez, can be adopted in turn by Nigeria. In fact, Nigerians and other Africans can go back further and adapt John F. Kennedy’s remark at his inauguration in 1961: “Ask not what Obama can do for you: Ask what you can now do for yourself, your community, and your country.”

I encounter many Nigerians, at home and abroad, who are eager to move beyond rhetoric to development action. Richard Sklar, the American political scientist, once described Africa as a workshop of democracy.[11] Nigeria should be a workshop of democracy and development, an exemplar of smart growth in Africa. Its federal system, consisting of 36 states, 774 local government areas, and a central government can represent 811 arenas of experimentation to combine good governance, institution- building, and economic enterprise. At present, the government of the state of Lagos is demonstrating what can be accomplished by dynamic leadership and concerted action. The Obama Era can represent for Africa an era of renewed self-reliance, enterprise, and opportunity. That, in my opinion, is what the anticipated victory of the Obama/Biden ticket can mean for the people of this continent who have experienced so much distress and the repeated crushing of so many hopes.

[1] I was a Fellow for African Governance of the Carter Center, 1988-1994.





[6] One Economics Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, Economic Growth (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[7] African Affairs (January 2003), pp. 1-23.



[10] Tom Burgis, “Zambia’s new president pledges investment boom,” Financial Times, 3 November 2008.

[11] “Democracy in Africa,” African Studies Review, No. 3 and 4 (September-December, 1983), pp. 11-24.