By Andrew M. Mwenda
US Senator Dick Durbin sits on US Senate’s foreign relations, appropriations, and judiciary. He spoke to The Independent’s Andrew Mwenda.
Many people believe the US government’s interest in Africa is purely based on security. As long as African governments can combat Al Qaeda that’s all.
Let me tell you any honest government leader in the world will tell you their first concern is security of their nation. America is no different. So we look for friends and allies who will help to keep us safe. If you will help us fight terrorism, if you will keep Al Qaeda from another 911, we will work with you and we will try to help you too. I am sure at the heart of it the Uganda government will say the same thing.
But beyond security the United States also plays a pretty important role when it comes to development. When you look at what we are investing in, what was the value in the US of our commitment to ending the HIV Aids epidemic in Africa. You might say well pharmaceutical companies, may be, but when it came to building the health infrastructure of Africa to get through that epidemic it was because we were a caring people.
You said any State’s primary interest is its own security. So how come the US government seems to be opposed to Rwanda, which is facing an existential threat from genociders across the border in Congo?
I think the situation is much more complicated than that. We have a strong working relationship with Rwanda. My concern is what is happening across the border in DRC, and I have been to Goma twice, six years ago and last year and in that period of time I can tell you that we are trying to help diffuse the situation.
One of the problems is conflict minerals. They are mining things there that are very valuable for cell phones, computers, and they are using slave labour, and terrible things are happening.
A number of rebel groups try to control this because there are vast amounts of money involved. I and two other Senators put a provision in the banking law where American corporations would have to make an honest effort to track where these minerals are coming from so that they weren’t like blood diamonds or minerals coming in.
But we are working today, talking to the leaders in Uganda about their efforts with the M23 to try to find peaceful resolution there, trying to put an end to Mr. Kony and the LRA and the terrible things that they have done, the efforts they are making in Somalia to try to put Al Shabaab out of business. All of these things are consistent with our security goals and those of Uganda.
I was talking about Rwanda because the Congolese government openly, on Radio, in newspapers calls upon people to commit genocide against Tutsi ethnic community that live inside Congo. The M23 is a rebellion against the government of Congo for threatening genocide against them and yet the US government seems to be opposed to the victims of the threat and on the side of the genociders.
It is at this point not hopeless but a challenging tangle of political and military interests. But don’t ever look beyond some of the terrible atrocities that are taking place. Rape has become a weapon of war. It is hard to draw the line between the good guys and bad guys with some of these atrocities, child soldiers, rape and the exploitation of people. It’s official. We want it to come to a stable, peaceful end and we are encouraging the Ugandans who are sitting down and trying to make that happen.
In the relations between the United States and Africa, the most definitive things these days are two, one US interests in fighting terrorism in this region and two promoting aid as an instrument of development. Many development economists believe that aid is antithetical to the interests of economic development and finances corrupt governments. What do you think about that argument?
First, we don’t want to waste one US dollar, we want to help countries and the people who live there but we have no tolerance for corruption, graft or waste. I do believe that if you use aid wisely it can help. If we can provide assistance that leads to more children going to school particularly young women I think that is a positive investment in the future.
If you look at the US aid policy, it does not give budget support, it gives project support. But governments finance education, especially of the girl child as you say, through budget support, so why doesn’t US aid favour budget support.
What we are trying to do is to not absorb and cover the operational costs of government. What we are trying to do is make investments, capital investments, investments in education and training that literally will move a country forward. If we reach the point where we are trying to just make up the budget deficit in a country then how do we explain our own budget deficit, we have to be very careful where we make investments.
It turns out that in project aid, people say that about 80% of total money given by the United States government goes back to US companies and consultants.
Yes and this reflects the reality of politics, here’s what I mean. If you ask the American people, `we have a deficit; we need to cut spending what should we cut?’. They say foreign aid, why are you giving money to foreign countries when we have so many problems right here in the United States. Then I say to them, well what percentage of our budget do you think is foreign aid, average answer 20%. It’s 2%.
So people have this mistaken notion about the volume of money involved, but they also have this feeling first take care of your own before you worry about the rest of the world. We have a limited amount that we spend on foreign aid, if we can help create American jobs and still help other countries it makes it easier politically. If a company in Chicago is going to make a product, we are going to give that product because we create American jobs and we are helping other people alright.
But do you see the moral dilemma that then it turns out that America gives you money by the left hand and takes it by the right hand?
You could argue that. I think it can be a win-win situation.
Let me give you a live example, sometimes there may be a famine in South Sudan, we have a lot of grain in Uganda, America gives aid to South Sudan and you have to ship corn all the way across turbulent seas from the US using American shipping lines up to South Sudan when you can actually buy it from Uganda.
I tell you when it come to feeding and hunger issues, I represent an agricultural state you know that. Our farmers want to believe that what they are growing will be exported to help them.
So they lobby their Senator to ensure that.
The problem we run into is we diminish the value of what we are giving when we insist that it come from the US and is shipped on American vessels. At the end of the day it turns out that it’s a diminished contribution. So I am more open to that because what I believe is that in developing countries where the economies and the agriculture sector developing we have to work to build the local economy. That to me is the strength of foreign aid, feed you today but teach you how to grow your own tomorrow.
Many people feel that the best way to help Africans out of poverty is through trade and one way of promoting trade is to ensure that African farmers are able to export their crops to the American market but because of huge subsidies you give to your farmers it makes our products uncompetitive. What does the US Senate’s foreign relations committee feel about that?
Well it’s mainly the Senate Agricultural committee, but here’s again many of our farmers have had difficult times and as a consequence like farmers all over the world they say to their government, protect us. So we protect them. We give them subsidies when they have bad years, we have trade policies that are good for them, and at the end of it though you are making a very good point.
Sometimes we do that at the expense of other producers, sugar is a good example. We have a program that I oppose in the US that limits imports of sugar, why, so that we can keep domestic sugar prices high. I honestly believe that our agricultural sector is so good, so productive, so much better than the rest of the world and if all the walls came down we would compete just fine.
Another best instrument of development that is certainly not aid is investment. One of the ways of course is to encourage American investors to come and invest in Africa where they could be assured of a risk-adjusted rate of return. What do you think about that?
I believe in it and I know you right and we have been trying for years now. So what we said is gather together all the agencies of government in Washington that work on Africa trade and have them talk to one another to come up with a plan. Let’s develop a better trade relation between Africa and the United States, one Senator objected it.
If we do not open our eyes in America to what is happening in Africa, we’re fools. The Chinese know what’s happening in Africa, in the last ten years, six of the ten fastest growing economies were in Africa. In the next ten years eight of the ten fastest growing economies will be in Africa. And where are we, we are standing on the sidelines watching the Chinese scramble all over Africa, we’re fools.
Why do you think the Americans are not warming up to investing in Africa?
They have an image of Africa that is totally wrong. Ohhh… it’s the Dark Continent, those people over there do not have cell phones, don’t have cars. They have an image of Africa that is locked in the past; they do not know modern Africa. The Chinese know there’s a market there, raw materials and energy and there are opportunities in Africa. We have got to learn that in the United States.