A Clear Vision for US and Africa
A Clear Vision for US and Africa
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

A Clear Vision for US and Africa

Nowhere in the world is Barack Obama's entry into the White House more anticipated than in Africa. Throughout the continent, the elevation of a son of Africa to the world's most powerful position is a source of pride and validation, and a promise of a more mature, robust, and sympathetic relationship between Africa and America. To fulfill this promise, however, there must be a clear, pragmatic vision of what this new relationship will look like.

For three decades, US policymakers have looked at Africa through thick lenses. In the 1980s, their vision was shaped by the Cold War, the antiapartheid movement, and deference to former colonial powers.

In the 1990s, there was a welcome shift toward encouraging democracy, economic growth, and good governance, and Africa benefitted significantly. But too often American policymakers empowered African "big men" who talked the talk but did not walk the walk.

Most recently, the Bush administration largely saw Africa through a terrorism lens, and curried favor with those prepared to sign on - often rhetorically - to the war on terrorism. Positive steps, including US support for battling HIV/AIDS and resolving conflicts, were overshadowed by this preoccupation.

Throughout this period, Africa was also seen as a basketcase of conflict, poverty, and disease, worthy of charity and pity. Regrettably, these visions often had devastating effects, especially by prioritizing military assistance that propped up authoritarian leaders and emergency relief that saved lives but did little to address the long-term problems.

To discard the distorting lenses means recognizing that Africa is struggling with armed conflict, extreme poverty, weak governance, devastating disease, and abusive regimes. Half the children in sub-Saharan African under age 5 suffer from stunted growth, 2 million children under 15 are afflicted with HIV/AIDS, 43 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day, and senseless conflicts rage in eastern Congo, northern Uganda, Somalia, Darfur, and Zimbabwe.

There will be immediate pressure on Obama to address these festering conflicts. However, a clear vision of Africa means recognizing that America has multiple interests there: to ease the suffering of those in dire straits; to create markets for American exports and investments; to ensure access to energy supplies; and to promote stable societies that can resist extremism and terrorism, and close the door to trafficking in people, drugs, and arms.

It means accepting the common interests of Africa and America in democracy, good governance, respect for human rights, transparency, peaceful resolution of conflict, socio-economic development, and the fight against terrorism.

Some basic principles should guide this effort. First, democracy, good governance, and sustainable development demand strengthening institutions, not individuals. These goals are best promoted by strong judiciaries and legislatures, independent and credible electoral systems, professional security services under civilian rule, and broad-based and unhindered civil society, including women's groups.

Second, external contributions to governance, peacemaking, and development are most effective when channelled through institutions that empower Africans themselves, including the African Union, the New Economic Policy for African Development, and the Millennium Challenge Account. Further, the United Nations and World Bank should be supported in the areas of peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction, institution-building, and socio-economic advancement, in part as a burden-sharing exercise.

Third, Africans need trade and investment as much as foreign aid. Programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act have created jobs in Africa by facilitating exports in sustainable sectors, helping address the dangerous phenomenon of youth unemployment. Such programs will be even more important as the global financial meltdown dries up foreign investment, reduces prices for African commodity exports, shrinks remittances from diasporas working abroad, and slashes foreign aid.

Of course, Africans have their own responsibilities to build this new relationship. They must adopt the policies and practices that can make new American engagement effective and sustainable. They must abandon winner-take-all power structures, crack down on corruption, reform abusive militaries and police forces, empower civil society, respecting rule of law and human rights, and give priority to investments in health, education, housing, and other social services. It is a challenging list, but steps are essential if Africa is to benefit from the clear-eyed American engagement that will hopefully come its way.

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