Enmity or Engagement in Africa?

Stephen DeAngelis

January 23, 2007

Last fall Lionel Barber and Andrew England wrote an article in the Financial Times about China’s advances in Africa [“China’s Africa scramble finds welcome in Kenya,” 9 August 2006]. The article begins with an interview of Kenya’s foreign minister, Raphael Tuju. Tuju’s irritation is clear as he notes that the developed world is trying to strengthen relations with China, but the West gets nervous when it sees resource rich African countries trying to do the same thing.

“Critics fear Beijing will pour money into conflict-ridden countries with dire human rights records simply to procure raw materials to fuel growth, citing examples such as Zimbabwe and oil-rich Sudan. By doing so, China helps prop up dictatorial regimes while reducing the leverage of the west and efforts to link development aid to good governance, the critics argue. Some also question whether Africa is being exploited in a one-sided relationship: selling off national treasures while opening itself up to cheap – and often counterfeit – Chinese products that could cripple fledgling African industries. Even the most common goods, such as bicycles and textiles, often originate from China. Yet to Mr Tuju, 47, it is the west that is guilty of hypocrisy. He argues that developed nations from the US to Germany trade openly with China and says Africa would be ‘crazy’ not to engage with Beijing.”

China is doing more than simply buying resources. It is trying to establish a permanent presence. Barber and England report that China owns a radio station in Nairobi that broadcasts in English, Chinese, and Kiswahili. Kenyan universities believe that long-term relations will be established with China and have begun teaching Chinese language courses. As Barber and England noted, critics fear that China is looking to capture Africa’s resources and lock out the rest of the world. Certainly the Bush administration has noted China’s inroads and it has quietly joined the engagement. The President’s approach, according to Washington Post staff writer Michael A. Fletcher, involves a significant increase in humanitarian assistance to the Dark Continent [“Bush Has Quietly Tripled Aid to Africa,” 31 December 2006].

“The president has tripled direct humanitarian and development aid to the world’s most impoverished continent since taking office and recently vowed to double that increased amount by 2010 — to nearly $9 billion. The moves have surprised — and pleased — longtime supporters of assistance for Africa, who note that because Bush has received little support from African American voters, he has little obvious political incentive for his interest. … Bush has increased direct development and humanitarian aid to Africa to more than $4 billion a year from $1.4 billion in 2001, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And four African nations — Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt and Uganda — rank among the world’s top 10 recipients in aid from the United States.”

Egypt, of course, has been a major recipient of U.S. aid (financial assistance has been used to ensure Egypt stays on peaceful terms with Israel). The goodwill that this increase in assistance should have brought the U.S. has been squandered as a result of the war in Iraq. A just-released BBC World poll indicates that only about a third of those polled believe the U.S. is a force for good in the world. Bush’s engagement has gone beyond increasing aid, however.

“Bush has met with nearly three dozen African heads of state during his six years in office. He visited Africa in his first term, and aides say he hopes to make a return visit next year. Although some activists criticize Bush for not doing more to end the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, others credit him for playing a role in ending deadly conflicts in Liberia, the Congo and other parts of Sudan. Meanwhile, Bush has overseen a steady rise in U.S. trade with Africa, which has doubled since 2001. … To many longtime Africa supporters, all of this is surprising for a president who is often criticized as lacking curiosity about much of the world and who heads a political party traditionally skeptical of the efficacy of foreign aid.”

Other analysts note that many evangelical, hardcore Bush supporters have for years supported humanitarian efforts in Africa and that Bush’s support for Africa is out of character with neither his political nor religious principles. That doesn’t mean that skeptics don’t abound:

“Some advocates suspect that the Bush administration’s interest in Africa is motivated more by business ambitions than altruism. Grants made by the Millennium Challenge Corp., a foreign aid program developed by Bush with the aim of rewarding poor countries that practice good governance, are also partially predicated on whether countries have open markets that allow widespread foreign investment. ‘I know a lot of activist groups who believe that the president’s stated commitment to Africa is, at best, a play on words,’ said Nii Akuetteh, executive director of Africa Action, a Washington-based advocacy organization. ‘First of all, much of the aid is emergency food or medical aid, rather than true development assistance. Then there are conditions that are attached where the emphasis is more on countries that open up their markets so American companies can go in and privatize things like water and electrical service or have access to certain resources.’ Bush launched his $1.2 billion malaria initiative in June 2005 with the goal of reducing malaria-related deaths in 15 African countries by 50 percent. The disease kills more than 1 million people a year, most of them African children under age 5. The malaria program complements the president’s largest global health initiative, the $15 billion, five-year plan known as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Under the program, about 800,000 Africans are receiving drugs that enable them to live longer with the disease and help to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus.”

Both the U.S. and China will eventually learn that the only way to truly help Africa is through development. African countries cannot sustain a decent standard of living for their populations with a resource-centric economy. Establishing the conditions necessary to attract foreign direct investment, not just aid, begins with the Africans themselves. They have to rid the continent of corruption, take advantage of financial aid to improve education, and embrace health programs aimed at ridding the continent of the many diseases that now plague it. When African countries start seeing their people as their greatest resources, real change has a chance.