United States aid to Africa is on a downswing just as African determination to tackle tough economic problems is on an upswing. The cuts in US assistance could not come at a worse time. This is the assessment made by a top foreign assistance official, Mark Edelman, who heads the Africa Bureau of the US Agency for International Development (AID).
Many African leaders are no longer blaming the legacy of Western imperialism for all of their woes. They have begun to look for ways to turn their countries around, says Mr. Edelman.
``They are taking tough political positions'' in making reforms, but they need help carrying them out, he adds. ``Who do they turn to [for aid]?'' the 1984 political appointee asked in a recent interview.
Following an easing of the 1984-85 African famine, the US Congress, under pressure to reduce federal deficits, has cut administration requests for increased funds for Africa.
But both UN and US officials are concerned that if the continent-wide push to improve agricultural production is not heavily supported by the West, the next of periodic droughts there may take another high human toll. In the last decade, food production in Africa has steadily declined, as population has grown by about 3.2 percent a year.
Edelman's assessment came as Secretary of State George Shultz returned from a six-nation visit to sub-Saharan Africa earlier this month. In part, the Shultz trip was aimed at encouraging nations that have already begun to make economic policy reforms to continue to do so.
Aid cuts raise the question of how ``serious'' the US is in helping Africa, says Carol Lancaster, director of Georgetown University's African studies program and a former State Department official.
In the fiscal year ending in 1985, US economic aid to Africa hit a peak of about $l.6 billion at the same time a major drought devastated much of the continent. The US has allotted an estimated $819 million to Africa in this fiscal year. The administration's new request is $890 million for Africa. But some members of Congress have already said the entire AID budget will be cut again.
Even the reduced amounts are not always used well, say critics such as John Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council, a research group based in Washington. Too much of it, they say, goes to reward political friends. The US, says Mr. Sewell, should ``give priority to development needs and not short term political needs.''
Some private analysts question US efforts to get African nations to change some economic policies. A number of these reforms are the same ones being sought by international lending agencies. They include: selling many of the state-run industries and services; opening markets to less restricted foreign trade; devaluating inflated currencies; and ending food subsidies.
African nations ``are changing their policies all across the continent,'' says Edelman, who holds degrees in both history and public administration. But, he adds, ``The rhetoric is changing faster than the reality.'' African leaders remain wary of economic changes that provide incentive for farmers at the expense of higher prices for urban dwellers. In many nations, it is the city dwellers who form the ruler's power base.
And these policy reforms may not help the poor, says a congressional staff member on African affairs. Cutting food subsidies can cause malnutrition for the poor who can't afford higher prices, the aide says. This may lead to riots - as it did recently in Zambia. But if bread prices are allowed to rise, ``in the long run ... you get more production'' because farmers earn more, Edelman notes.
Asked if there had been any reassessment of AID policies in Africa following the 1984-85 drought, Edeleman said: ``The strategy we were following before the drought is just as good after the drought.''
That strategy, he said, includes an emphasis on policy reforms plus assistance to agricultural production, with special attention to agriculture research. It does not include livestock programs, which AID, for the most part, has not been very successful with in Africa.
Edelman also says AID officials in Africa are doing more listening to local farmers. Being more ``sensitive'' to local needs is crucial to project success, he says.
In Burundi, for example, local farmers refused AID's offer of a new high-yield variety of corn that matures in about five months they needed the land for bean crops following the corn harvest. AID then came forward with a variety of corn that matures about one month faster.
Too often, he says, ``people in Washington, in this agency, fire bolts from on high to these folks [Africans] telling them: `This is what you ought to do; this is the prescription and go do it,''' says Edelman.