New US leader will give Africa hope, not money
Last Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, more tears of joy may have fallen at one moment than ever before in history. It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of the world literally erupted with pride, euphoria, and relief as Barack Obama (now termed â€œPresident-elect Barack Obamaâ€) was announced the winner of the 2008 US presidential elections, becoming the first African-American elected president of the United States. Grown men wept freely in the streets of America, hundreds of Japanese residents in the town Obama threw a party, and dozens of babies were anointed with the names â€œBarack Obamaâ€ or â€œMichelle Obamaâ€ in hospitals around Kenya.
There are many explanations for the worldwide Obamamania. Obama represented a stark contrast to the policies and politics of one of Americaâ€™s least liked presidents of all time, George W. Bush. He convinced young Americans and those who had until now felt ostracized or neglected by their government that their voices do matter, that they can make democracy work for them. He won peopleâ€™s trust with his honesty and humility. He showed them that nothing is impossible, and their dreams should never be dictated by the color of their skin. It didnâ€™t hurt that he also happens to be one of the best orators in recent history. Or that he is pretty darn good looking, with a beautiful wife and cute kids to top it all off.
But Obama also knows that the obsession wonâ€™t last. He is not basking in the glory of his election, but is instead acutely aware of the fact the phenomenon will fade, along with his inspirational power, if he does not act immediately on his tear-inducing words. He will have to hit the ground not just running, but sprinting come inauguration day on January 20, 2009, or the ground will instead hit him â€“ and hard.
In his speech in Chicago last Tuesday night, after learning of his victory, he told the adoring crowd, â€œThe road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America,â€ he said, â€œI have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there â€“ we will get there.â€ Here is the thing, though, that his supporters worldwide would do well to remember â€“ however high his hopes may be for changing the world, his first priority is to fix America.
The challenges to America and its new president are many, and far more trying than they have been in recent history. It will take all of Obamaâ€™s energy to begin turning around the US economy, ending the war in Iraq while shifting focus to Afghanistan, and fixing Americaâ€™s schools and health care system, among many other pressing issues to the American people. So where does the rest of the world fit into the picture? Where does Africa, the birthplace of Obamaâ€™s father, fit into the story of President Obamaâ€™s mission of â€œchangeâ€?
In September one of Obamaâ€™s foreign policy advisers, Dr. Witney Schneidman, gave remarks at the forum on â€œUS-Africa Policy Agenda and the Next Administrationâ€ in Washington, DC, held by the Constituency for Africa 2008 Ronald H. Brown African Affairs Series. He listed three fundamental objectives that Obama would pursue in Africa. One, to â€œaccelerate Africaâ€™s integration into the global economyâ€; two, to â€œenhance the peace and security of African statesâ€; and three, to â€œstrengthen relationships with those governments, institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and reducing poverty in Africa.â€
Lets take a look at each of these three major objectives.
Accelerate Africaâ€™s integration into the global economy
Accelerating Africaâ€™s integration into the global economy is not a novel idea. In fact, the international and donor community has been trying to do this for years, with mixed success. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was introduced in May 2000 specifically for this purpose. It is supposed to offer incentives for African countries to open their economies and build free markets. But how successful has AGOA been in achieving this in the past eight years?
Hashim Mulangwa, a former employee of the Ugandan governmentâ€™s AGOA office, says that â€œthe biggest issue that has been facing AGOA eligible countries â€“ and one that has elicited a lot of debate and controversy in all AGOA meetings â€“ has been the fact that market access doesnâ€™t necessarily mean market success! The fact that many of these countries can export various products to the US market under AGOA doesnâ€™t necessarily mean that they are able to.â€
In other words, all the freedom to trade in the world will not help if you do not have goods to trade. â€œCapacity to trade is still a huge constraint in these countries,â€ Mulangwa explains. â€œWhile Uganda can export textiles or shoes, bags, etc favourably to the US market, it has no capacity/factories to process leather or make the bags.â€
Poor infrastructure has also dealt a devastating blow to trade in Uganda. In a recent interview in the local media, Gideon Badagawa, the executive director of the Uganda Manufacturers Association, lamented, â€œOur transport infrastructure is horrendous to the extent that farmers say in Kamwenge canâ€™t access the regional market in Mbarara town. Now, if youâ€™re unable to move goods within the country, how are you going to get them exported even if you were all the markets in the world?...The issues of infrastructure, energy, governance are fundamentals that must be addressed to get the industry sector in Africa more competitive.â€
Of course, some countries, like South Africa, have done quite well under AGOA. This is largely because these countries already have much of the needed internal capacity. The good news for countries like Uganda who have watched AGOA flop with the likes of Tri-Star Apparel, is that Obama has also said he will work with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, â€œto develop lending facilities to small and medium businesses, so that those companies under $5 million can become $10 and $20 million companies, creating new jobs, sustainable incomes and partners for American companies,â€ according to Dr. Schneidman. This could help in supporting the internal environment in Uganda and elsewhere so that businesses and farmers can take advantage of the markets that are open to them under AGOA.
Obamaâ€™s policy plan also includes establishing an Add Value to Agriculture Initiative (AVTA) to promote research and innovation in the agricultural sector, and working with China â€œto establish the rules of the road and to ensure that we are working at common purpose to enhance economic development on the continent.â€
Enhance peace and security of African states
Obama has been quite vocal on the conflict in Darfur and it appears to be one of his top priorities on the continent. In a July 2008 questionnaire with the Enough Project, based in Washington, DC, Obama stated, â€œAs president, I will make ending the genocide in Darfur a priority from Day Oneâ€¦While the US has provided aid and military resources to the African Union mission in Darfur, I believe this is Americaâ€™s moment to lead the way toward ending this crisis.â€ How exactly will he do this? Though his answer was reasonably thorough for a presidential candidate (which he was at the time he responded in the questionnaire), it is too vague for a president.
He wrote: â€œMy administration will work with Congress and our allies in Europe and elsewhere to impose effective sanctions on the Government of Sudan so long as Sudan continues to obstruct UNAMID and attack civilians.Â As a further measure to protect civilians in Darfur, my administration will work with NATO to develop a plan for enforcing the UN ban on offensive military flights by the Government of Sudan in Darfur while ensuring the continued effective provision by non-governmental organizations of humanitarian supplies to Darfur.â€
Much of this and the policy plans laid out by Dr Schneidman use impressive, if vague, rhetoric. â€œIncrease pressureâ€, â€œrecalibrate the US approachâ€, â€œdevelop an approachâ€, â€œstrongly support the UN military forceâ€ and â€œbecome more engagedâ€ all sound good on paper, but they are only letters on a page until action speaks for itself. Again, the good news is that Africa policy featured at all in his presidential campaign, which bodes well for the attention it will receive when he takes office. It is too soon to tell whether his peace and security policies will be much of a change from those of the past few administrations. As is characteristic, he seems to suggest he will be making changes and improvements, but security in Africa so far appears to fall far under the radar compared to the landslide of other foreign policy headaches, like Iran and Afghanistan.
Deepening democracy, and reducing poverty in Africa
Obama has appeared praiseworthy of much of Bushâ€™s policy and programs in Africa, including the Presidentâ€™s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Millenium Challenge Account (MCA) and Bushâ€™s malaria initiative. But he suggests that this is not enough. As Dr Schneidman remarked, â€œWe have seen no increase in development assistance in areas such as democracy building, the rule of law, judicial reform, the strengthening of parliaments, education and enhancing the entrepreneurial skills of men and women.â€ He therefore suggested that there would be increased investment in foreign assistance and mentioned several new programs, including the Global Education Fund to help finance primary education and the Global Energy and Environment Initiative (GEE) to help develop alternative energy sources in developing countries.
Obama seeks to bring more â€œresourcesâ€ to the continent, but it is not clear that there will be a major departure from traditional US assistance to Africa. On his new website, http://change.gov, he lays out a plan for â€œRenewing American Global Leadership.â€ The website states, â€œObama and Biden will embrace the Millenium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty around the world in half by 2015, and they will double our foreign assistance to $50 billion to achieve that goal.â€
This plan may or may not fall by the wayside given the way the US economy has nosedived in recent months. But in any case, the plans laid out, however vague, do not appear to be much of a change from past US-Africa policy, just perhaps with more money and more programs. This is underscored by the fact that much of the staff working on Africa policy maybe be a re-run of the Clinton administration. Dr Schneidman, for example served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration.
We have yet to see a very critical evaluation of the efficacy of policies already in place or the potential problems that come along with further increasing foreign aid, such as the hijacking of a countryâ€™s own priorities when it comes to development. Hopefully, Obamaâ€™s stated desire to work in partnership with African governments will be realized to a greater extent than in the past.
Dr Schneidman stated, â€œIt will be important that African governments are part of this effort and part of this dialogue; the days of external powers on their own deciding what is best for Africa needs to come to an end, once and for all.â€
While this sounds like a step in the right direction, the reality is that African governments will rarely turn down monetary assistance, even if it distorts their own budgetary priorities. Eventually, a fundamental restructuring of the US-Africa relationship, particularly as it concerns foreign aid, will need to take place. Unfortunately, amidst the avalanche of problems this Obama administration seeks to solve, rethinking aid to Africa is unlikely to make it anywhere near the top of the list. But it is never a bad idea to have a little hope for change.
Yes, Africa Can
The fact that Obama has an African heritage has led some people, especially in Africa, to believe that as president he will pay closer attention to Africa and US-Africa policy than presidents past. The New Vision interviewed a number of Ugandan leaders immediately following Obamaâ€™s election, several of whom held this belief. Democratic Party president John Ssebaana Kizito said, â€œWe look forward to his leadership because it may enhance peace and democracy. His position, we assume, will assist poor countries in Africa.â€ Primary Healthcare State Minister Emmanuel Otaala said, â€œWe have been receiving a lot of support from the Global Fund and the US Presidentâ€™s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. If Bush has been providing this much, what about our very own? We expect increased support from Obamaâ€™s government.â€
But it is unrealistic to think that Obama will do Africa any special favors. Regardless of the origin of his genes, it is the American electorate that has chosen him as their president, and he is a public servant to the American people â€“ not the Kenyan people, not the Ugandan people, and not the African people more generally. Moreover, Obama is not an expert on Africa simply because he is half African. His Africa policy thus far does not reflect a much deeper understanding of US-Africa relations or the effectiveness (or lackthereof) of policy than that of President Clinton or President Bush.
That said, a President Obama could be a very good thing for Africa in a way that Clinton, Bush and McCain could never be. First and foremost, Barack Obama is an inspiration. He is an inspiration not just for those who share his skin color and never believed that an African-American could be elected to the highest position in one of the most powerful countries in the world, but also for those who want to believe that millions of strangers can work together to make a difference and shape their collective future.
To the millions of people â€“ young, old, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, rich, poor, student, retiree, employee, veteran â€“ who worked together to elect Obama, either by donating, campaigning, volunteering, or voting, the election of an African-American junior Senator with an unusual name to the presidency of the United States meant that truly, anything is possible when people work together with one purpose.
It showed the world that a government of the people, by the people and for the people really can exist. It showed the world what leadership can achieve. Hopefully it will inspire men and women across the world to lead their countries into brighter futures. Hopefully it will show them that when a leader has failed the people, the people can work together to choose a new leader. Hopefully it will open their eyes to new possibilities for leadership â€“ a leader that may have darker or lighter skin than themselves, practice a different religion, speak a different language, or come from a different part of the country.
Obama is not a saint, he is not perfect, and he is not a saviour for Africa. But he is an incredibly smart, charismatic and determined individual whose greatest gift so far has been to show people that change is possible even under the most challenging conditions. It is now up to the people to make their voices heard and be the change they want to see in the world and in their own countries.
This is as true in Uganda and the rest of Africa as it is in America. A government of the people and for the people must also be by the people. As we go forward, therefore, we are best served not by depending on a single man, but by working together to achieve the goals we set for our countries and ourselves. As President-elect Obama concluded in his election night speech, it is now the time â€œto reaffirm that fundamental truth â€“ that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism and doubt, and those who tell us that we canâ€™t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes we can.â€