Sunday, November 7, 2010

Postelection: Africa Still Matters

The lamentation over what the incoming Tea Party Republicans will do to American government has begun. The concern over what will happen to U.S. Africa policy has not yet ginned up, but it will. There is every reason to be concerned that, in a budget-cutting Congress, funding for Africa will suffer. However, that need not be the result of last Tuesday’s voting.

The fiscal conservative wing of the Republican Party has long viewed spending, perhaps especially spending on foreign affairs, to be an often unwarranted drain on national resources. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader in the Senate, once called aid to Africa “money down a rat hole.” He changed his tune after the Constituency for Africa convinced his constituents to protest this view. In recent years, the national security wing and the social conservative wing have had control of the party’s policies, but the fiscal conservatives found the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be too costly and the fights against abortion and gay marriage to be distractions. Their resurgence puts funding levels for everything squarely in the target zone of legislators.

So now there will have to be battles to justify spending on Africa. The byword for the new American political landscape on aid programs is self-sufficiency. The Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) grants have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to developing countries, largely in Africa, so that major projects can be undertaken. The point must be made that the MCA process forces governments to work with their private sectors and civil societies to devise a plan that is broadly beneficial with benchmarks to determine progress.

When fiscal conservatives last took over Congress from Democrats in 1995, they approached welfare reform much in the way they are likely to approach foreign aid. The goal was to set a limit on the funding going to welfare recipients by building their capacity to work and even providing day care for their children. Therefore, a time limit could be set on how long one could receive welfare payments. In this case, the MCA model of having government bring in the private sector and civil society to devise plans that help build the country in the long run with the funding provided will likely be favored. The incoming members of Congress will tend to look more favorably upon countries that use the funding wisely and don’t have to repeatedly receive funding for the same unresolved issues.

This expands accountability and puts the burden of making the grants work on not just government, but other segments of society. If we are to avoid a resumption of the “rat hole” view of aid to Africa, accountability and transparency must be a significant part of the message to Congress. President Obama has signaled them as major elements of his Africa policy, so he won’t be caving in to fiscal conservatives to promote that policy.

The Obama Administration currently seeks to shift the burden for HIV-AIDS services to African health care systems which unfortunately are not yet prepared to undertake that burden. Congressional budget cutters will find such a policy almost irresistible to support. If the Administration is ready to push responsibility onto African governments, preparing those governments to shoulder that burden must be a priority. That will not be easy unless it is described as enabling the shift in burden to take place.

Not much is being done yet to curb the current land grab trend in Africa, but if it is not opposed soon, there will be a terrible price to pay down the road for Africans without food or jobs because of their governments’ short-sighted policies. The mid-2008 food price spike led many countries unable to feed themselves to secure available land in Africa to meet their needs. The promises of enhanced infrastructure and shared food products to their African hosts remain to be fulfilled. If prices rise further in the future, such generosity will be unlikely to be honored. Moreover, if jobs are denied Africans due to the importation of foreign workers who then stay on to compete with African entrepreneurs, then the economies will be too weakened to benefit sufficiently from any new infrastructure or food sharing. This must be effectively explained to Congress as helping to prevent humanitarian disaster in the future.

There has been support for assisting in the recovery of African countries coming out of conflict, such as Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Continued aid will have to be tied to measures of success. Yet what about countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and the new Southern Sudan? They will need help to get back on firm footing, but you can be certain that their natural wealth will be held against them. Some formula must be considered to justify outside help for those countries who have oil, gold, diamonds or other resources of value. It will no longer be possible for generosity to countries who fail to use their existing resources to help themselves.

At the recent Africare dinner, World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told the audience that “Africa does not want to continue to be dependent.” This is true, but Africa’s supporters also must accept this principle and use it to maintain aid for Africa in this time of budget cutting. An Africa that wants a hand up rather than a handout can still get help.

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