Saturday, March 5, 2011

U.S. Federal Budget Should Reflect Africa’s Importance

Amid all the talk of federal budget cuts these days, spending on foreign aid of all sorts is a prime target. Public opinion polls have consistently shown over the years that voters believe our government spends far more on assisting other countries than we actually do. So that brings on talk of drastic cuts – even consideration of eliminating the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In all these deliberations, many members of Congress and even some Administration officials may see aid to Africa as particularly ripe for cutting back. We have seen corrupt African leaders fall and others desperately hold onto power in lands so far away to many Americans that they might as well be on the dark side of the Moon. But America is linked to Africa in many ways that are too important to ignore, and our social investments on the Africa continent are not just favors we do for foreigners for whom we have sympathy; it is spending to protect allies, save lives and safeguard our own future.

In the last few weeks, unrest in North Africa has caused oil prices to rise steadily. We face the prospect of US$5-a-gallon gasoline not only because oil supplies are interrupted, but also on the fear of potential interruption. The United States gets nearly one-fifth of our oil from West Africa, and with increasing oil finds in Uganda, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Sao Tome and Principe and other locations on the continent, Africa has become too important a petroleum source to hope that the supplies will not be interrupted. Energy security has long been a concern of the U.S. government – even before the creation of the Africa Command.

Failed states provide safe havens for terrorists and now pirates, who threaten commerce and lives. Somalia and Sudan have long been well known as sites for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to train and harbor their minions. The Horn of Africa in the East is home to Islamic fundamentalists, some of whom perpetrated attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. As we watch government after government fall suddenly or crumble under the pressure of popular uprisings, there is concern that Islamic militants could seize power and create enemy states where allies now exist.

Failed states or even weak states can become bases for international crime cartels. International drug trafficking is increasingly using African countries as transshipment points. In fact, since 2003, West Africa has been the source of 99% of all drugs seized in Africa, and those seizures have increased by a factor of five during that period. The United Nations has dubbed Guinea Bissau, one of the world’s poorest countries, as Africa’s first “narco-state.” The War on Drugs has shifted from Central and South America and that fact cannot be ignored.

Health care concerns in Africa have limited the life spans of Africa, but beyond the basic human concern for the welfare of other people, Africa’s health issues impact others in the world, including Americans here in our own country. Globalization has accelerated the linkage of the world and allows people – and sometimes the diseases they carry – to leave one country and arrive in another in less than a day. Scientists tell us that West Nile virus has existed in Africa for 1,000 years and has been identified as one of the possible causes of the death of the legendary Alexander the Great. Now this disease is loose worldwide. West Nile virus was first identified in the United States in 1999, and it has been identified in locations across the country.

The very air we breathe is partially created by the world’s rain forests. While the role of rain forests in oxygen generation has been somewhat exaggerated, they are realistically estimated to be responsible for the production of 20% of earth’s oxygen. Cutting down the rain forests in Africa is not merely a local problem for African countries; it is a global issue for all of us. We debate the concept of global warming, but climate change is indisputable. We just don’t know yet what impact it has on the global ecosystem. Certainly, we know storms in West Africa contribute to hurricanes in our hemisphere, so mitigating the negative impact of climate change in Africa is our problem too.

The rise of food prices in recent years is a global problem. Scarcity of food produced in Africa means the worldwide shortage causes our prices to rise too. The Food and Agricultural Organization says the global food price index has hit a record high for the third straight month. Even if we produce enough for ourselves, the market for food is not limited to one country alone. The demand for staples such as rice, wheat and corn affects everyone, and the lack of money to buy such agricultural products means American farmers have their market opportunities limited.

I have said before and repeat now that nearly 80 percent of the strategic minerals we need originate in Africa. An estimated 97 percent of the world’s platinum is from Africa, as well as 90 percent of the cobalt, 80 percent of the chromium, 64 percent of the manganese, half the world’s gold reserves and as much as a third of all uranium. In recent years, the mineral coltan, largely coming from Africa, has enabled the development of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices. We would be hard-pressed to construct jet aircraft, automobile catalytic converters or computers, cell phones and iPods without the minerals found in Africa, and in some cases, almost nowhere else in the world.

The health, security and well-being of Africa and its people must matter to us. So when we look at the necessary task of cutting the federal budget, we must be careful to consider the implications of cuts in aid to Africa. Such aid is not just a kindness to others; it is a favor we do for ourselves as well.

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