Hillary Clinton goes to sub-Saharan Africa: a counterpoise to China's sway?

The Secretary of State was in Senegal Wednesday, kicking off a six-nation trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Hillary Clinton will highlight Africa's economic and political progress – and try to define what Obama means by 'partnership, not patronage.'

By , Staff writer

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    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (r.) swears in members of the Peace Corps during a ceremony in Dakar on Aug. 1. Clinton urged Africa on Wednesday to recommit to democracy, declaring the 'old ways of governing' can no longer work on a continent boasting healthy economic growth and an increasingly empowered citizenry.
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may confront a sentiment that the United States is arriving a little late to Africa’s dance as she undertakes a 10-day, six-nation sub-Saharan trip to spread President Obama’s “partnership, not patronage” Africa policy.

The Obama administration came into office pledging a new relationship with Africa focused more on private investment, democracy-building, and security cooperation than on handouts. But America's own economic troubles and its focus on Asia have meant the new policy has been more one of words than action, some Africa experts say.

One result is that China has been left to solidify its place as the preeminent major-power investor in Africa at a time of rapid growth across much of the continent.

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“The [Obama] administration is coming a bit late – even with this new strategy there’s a sense that … it’s really not sufficient,” says Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “There’s a disappointment in terms of what could have been done.”

Secretary Clinton kicked off her trip in Senegal Wednesday, where she touted how the West African country overcame political tensions earlier this year to elect a new president. But too many Africans, she said, still live under “autocratic rulers who care more about preserving their grip on power than promoting the welfare of their citizens.”

In a speech in the capital of Dakar, Clinton previewed her Africa trip – her fourth as chief US diplomat – saying she would focus on the “partnership, not patronage” policy that President Obama unveiled in his 2009 speech in Ghana. “I will be talking about what that means – about a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it,” she said.

That comment seemed to refer to China, which has increasingly turned to Africa in recent years to supply the raw materials for its economic boom.

“The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over in the 21st century,” Clinton said.

One goal of Clinton’s trip will be to highlight Africa’s recent progress – from continuing economic growth in the midst of a global downturn and a rise in consumer spending, to signs of a growing political maturity in some countries – and thus to pique the interest of American investors in a continent they have often shunned.

Clinton will wind up her trip Aug. 10 in South Africa, a middle-income country whose global influence is rising as one of the BRICS (Brazil, India, China, South Africa) emerging economies. Before that, she will make stops in Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Sudan, which became the continent’s newest country in 2011 after breaking off from Sudan.

South Africa is a good place for Clinton to bring a new US policy toward Africa, some experts say, because in some key ways it represents where a growing Africa is heading: increased prosperity for some as investment grows, but under broad and crushing inequality.

“South Africa is a middle-income country with perhaps the highest inequality in the world,” says Haroon Bhorat, director of development policy research at the University of Cape Town. Clinton, he says, is likely to emphasize that South Africa must address its considerable economic challenges, including unemployment that tops 25 percent, if it wants to fulfill its promise as “Africa’s next big thing.”  

Clinton will also be looking to elaborate what the White House unveiled last month as its “new strategy for sub-Saharan Africa,” which speaks of four “pillars” of US relations with the continent: democracy-building, trade and investment, development, and peace and security. The latter point reflects growing concern across the administration that Al Qaeda and affiliated extremist groups are gaining new footholds in pockets of instability.

But some experts say what is billed as a “new strategy” risks not sounding all that different to Africans – especially if it remains policy with little concrete application.

“What the US is talking about sounds good, but it comes across to both the leaders and the people in Africa as theoretical and abstract, and that will hamper the US role in Africa until it becomes something more concrete,” says Terza Lima-Neves, an associate professor of African politics at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C.

Despite a “yearning” across much of Africa for the things the US talks about, from strengthened democracies to greater respect for human rights, Professor Lima-Neves says, there is also a part of Africans that appreciates the “more concrete” version of assistance that China has made a part of its investment strategy.

Noting that China has focused on building infrastructure while “leaving things like governance or human rights alone,” she says there’s no denying the appeal of that approach “to the family that now has a paved street in front of their house or a school for their kids to go to.”

That doesn’t mean the Chinese approach is better, Lima-Neves says, but rather that the US should figure out a way to make its policy and its “partnership” with Africa more tangible.

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