During my visits to Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia and Somalia over the past 12 months, I was told that U.S. influence is becoming less relevant because of our inconsistent foreign policy. African countries are depending more on China and other nations for their economic growth. When President Obama visited Ghana in 2009, for fewer than 24 hours, he told parliament: “Development depends on good governance — [the] ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That’s the change that can unlock Africa’s potential.”
In May, at the 50th anniversary celebration in Ethiopia of the African Union, Secretary of State John F. Kerry lectured African leaders on the building blocks of democracy, good governance and human rights. A year earlier then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a 10-day visit to nine African countries, scolding their leaders about the lack of democracy, deriding China and leaving the continent with only promises.
Sub-Saharan African leaders are skeptical about the United States because they feel Americans have shown little interest in the continent — except for promoting regime change and building democratic institutions. Lectures on democracy are low on the “survival list” when people live on $1.25 per day. An All Africa article in early 2012 noted, “There has been little change in U.S.-Africa relations during the Obama administration, contrary to what many Africans had hoped. The support of democratic transitions and improved governance are at the core of Obama’s administration’s stated relations with Africa.”
Mr. Obama is due to leave Washington on Wednesday for a seven-day visit to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. The White House announcement about his trip garnered a lack of enthusiasm from people I talked with during my recent visits. Several stated that this second trip to Africa will be irrelevant. “What should we expect from such a brief visit?” they wondered.
U.S. taxpayers will spend $100 million for the first family’s tour of three countries, which will not give Mr. Obama a real picture of this culturally rich continent. If he stresses democracy and human rights, without specific economic programs to start immediately, he would be best served just to send a check instead. The trip’s logistics will include a fleet of fighter jets, hundreds of Secret Service agents, a Navy ship with a full trauma center, several military cargo planes loaded with 56 vehicles — three with bulletproof vinyl film to cover all the windows at the hotels — 14 limousines, an Air Force One backup aircraft, and a 747 Air Force One Command Center. This is all for a brief three-country excursion.
Africans are skeptical that Mr. Obama will relate to the poverty conditions and the real need for sustainable economic development. “Lectures on democracy will not put food on our table,” Africans told me on several occasions. Jendayi Frazer, former senior director for African affairs on the National Security Council and a former U.S. ambassador to South Africa noted, “African leaders feel let down [that Mr. Obama] hasn’t been more engaged, that he hasn’t had more dialogue with them, and that his administration has not had greater influence, particularly when they compare that to the significant engagement that they are finding coming out of China.”
If Mr. Obama seriously wants to engage Africa he needs to start by discussing the building blocks for economic growth, announced in his June 2012 “Presidential Policy Directive” for sub-Saharan Africa, intended to spur economic growth, trade, and investment. He also needs to make permanent the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act benefits for unlimited duty free access of manufactured goods from qualifying African countries.
The Millennium Development Goals established in 2000 at the United Nations included the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 and developing a global partnership for development. If Africa is to achieve these goals, an earnest effort needs to be made by the G-8 countries to help meet that challenge. Mr. Obama can start with his mission to Africa to set the tone. To date there has been insufficient progress. Almost 500 million people still live at the poverty level. Trade is the equalizer — aid is not a solution. Easier access to global markets is worth five times the amount of aid given.
This article was originally posted in The Washington Times.