Abandoning Africa

THE Dark Continent is about to become the Abandoned Continent. In its rush to balance the federal budget and virtually mothball foreign assistance, the United States Congress plans to slash Africa's modest share of development funding by a third.

The message is clear as an African sunset: Africa is marginal to American interests; it is expendable.

Cutting off aid to Africa is not in the best interests of America. The reasons are both practical and moral.

Africa is a growing market for American goods. Trade is following aid to Africa, just as it did to postwar Europe, and more recently to Asia and Latin America. US exports to Africa in 1994, worth $4.4 billion, exceeded American exports to the former Soviet Union by 22 percent. More than 84,000 American jobs were tied to African exports.

African nations have managed to develop their human and natural resources, their roads, communications and other infrastructure. And they have done this with our financial and technical support.

We do not, of course, export much to countries beset with natural disasters and man-made conflicts. We readily respond to humanitarian crises, at considerable and mounting cost, yet propose to disinvest in programs that reduce people's vulnerability to drought or foster development of more effective political and economic structures. These are tomorrows African markets.

Africa has the potential to be a net producer of food and renewable energy. Therefore, it has an important role in sustaining the planet's biodiversity and in preserving its ecological balance.

The moral imperative to remain engaged in Africa is equally strong. Millions of African slaves and their descendants helped to build this country. Millions more died in the slave trade. It was an African Holocaust, no less deserving of memory and reparation than the death of 6 million Jews in World War II.

Africa has had a significant influence on American culture. Much of our music, food, language, and literature derive from African culture. And, to a degree that would surprise, flatter, and perhaps embarrass many Americans, Africans admire our values, our institutions, and our cultural diversity. They look to us for political, economic, and even social leadership. They know they need America, and are hurt that Americans may not recognize that they need Africa.

US development assistance to Africa, never significant, has been declining since 1992 as a percentage of the federal budget. This year's allocation of $802 million is a mere five-hundredths of one percent. To cut it, as proposed, by nearly $300 million will undermine much that we have helped Africa to achieve in children's health, education, economic reform, food production, family planning, and democratization.

Little debate has taken place in the House and Senate on the proposed merging of the US Agency for International Development and other foreign affairs agencies into the State Department. There has been no serious analysis of the effectiveness of foreign aid vis-a-vis specific national interests.

The decision to gut the African aid budget may be the least-considered of all. It is an act of bridge-burning which will cost American jobs and African lives. Sadly, it will reveal to Africans that their admiration for Americans and the ''American way'' was misplaced.

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