United States' new sub-Saharan African plan: trade not aid

The Obama administration is signalling that the US is changing the way it does the aid business, promoting bilateral trade rather than one-way grants and loans.

•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "A View From the Cave."  The views expressed are the author's own.

Yesterday, the White House unveiled a new strategy for Sub Saharan Africa. Though light on actual substance, the policy does indicate an important direction in terms of how the Obama administration views SSA. In short, trade trumps aid.

The document lays out the Four Pillars of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa:

  1. Strengthen democratic institutions
  2. Spur economic growth, trade, and investment
  3. Advance peace and security
  4. Promote opportunity and development

Trade Over Aid

 The full text mentions the word "aid" only once* while "trade" is scattered about the strategy 20 times. That makes it a super scientific way of proving that trade is much more important than aid to the White House. Aside from fuzzy math, the report as a whole makes it quite clear that the US views sub-Saharan Africa as a partner rather than a beneficiary. President Obama notes, "two efforts that will be critical to the future of Africa: strengthening democratic institutions and boosting broad-based economic growth, including through trade and investment."

One could also point to the announcement this year that will shift USAID's policies toward supporting more local contractors as further evidence of the trend toward trade. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is another example of the US committing to ensuring free markets and democratic countries. The latter part of the focus came in to play when Madagascar experienced a bloodless coup in 2009 which was followed by suspension from AGOA.

It seems no coincidence that the report was released at the same time as the Frontiers for Development Conference and the AGOA forum. All seemingly act together to signal both a commitment to sub-Saharan Africa, but a view that puts economic development high on the priority list. Though the Child Survival Call to Action should not be forgotten as an indication of USAID's commitment to delivering programs that ensure child and maternal health.

"AGOA has helped to increase trade and investment and opened new doors of opportunity. It's led to new jobs, the rise of new sectors and new business opportunities for people in every country represented here, as well as the United States," said Secretary of State Clinton at the AGOA Forum. It seemed as if she was everywhere in DC this week.

Yesterday, Clinton addressed the Call to Action event. The focus was on health, something that often resides in the aid column, but Clinton made it clear that there is an economic argument for ensure that every child lives to the age of five.

But we can change the shape of this pyramid if we drive down child mortality, along with investing in girls’ education and improving access to voluntary family planning. It sounds, perhaps, like a paradox, but when fewer children die, people choose to have smaller families, knowing with greater confidence that their children will survive to adulthood. 

And then eventually there are more working adults supporting fewer dependents, which makes it easier for a country to make investments that drive sustained economic growth. And with that sustained economic growth, the country will likely be more stable, less prone to political crises, and more apt to become a partner to help solve global problems. So for all these reasons – politically, economically, and morally – we see the benefits of saving children’s lives.

There is little doubt of a development creep that could slowly supplant aid.

Don't forget resilience!

For those of you hoping to have escaped hearing the word resilience, I apologize. The favorite buzz word is absent for the majority of the document, but makes a for a strong finish reminiscent of I'll Have Another blowing past Bodemeister at Churchill Downs.

While continuing to lead the world in response to humanitarian crises in Africa, we will promote and bring to scale resilience policies and programs. In that context, we will work to prevent the weakening or collapse of local economies, protect livestock, promote sustainable access to clean water, and invest in programs that reduce community-level vulnerability to man-made and natural disasters.

If that generic phrasing leaves you feeling empty, you are not alone. There is good reason for building resilience so that individuals, communities and countries can withstand shocks such as changing food prices and drought. However, general sentiments do little to indicate what policies will take place. The upside is that  resilience indicates a view of local capability that can be supported as opposed to determining a help dynamic.

Peace Be With You

 The plan also looks into ensuring peace and preventing conflict. The Atrocities Prevention Board is an indication towards the direction the US is willing to take. For the most part, the Obama administration leans towards diplomatic solutions for conflicts. It is not a hard rule (ie. Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc.), but it is pretty darn close to one when it comes to sub-Saharan Africa. The strategy says:

Prevent Conflict and, Where Necessary, Mitigate Mass Atrocities and Hold Perpetrators Accountable. Consistent with the objectives of Presidential Study Directive-10, we will address atrocity risks at the earliest stage possible to help prevent violence before it emerges, and bolster domestic and international efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. We will also cultivate deeper and broader support among governments and multilateral organizations to work toward the same objectives.

The question of Sudan (and Syria for that matter) must at least be raised. The point of accountability is probably the hardest given that the US is not a signatory of the Rome Statue making it hard to pressure for Bashir to go to the ICC. Diplomatic interventions are taking place to mitigate conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, but it appears there is quite a ways to go before ensuring peace.

Gotta Mention China

Naturally, any report about African development has to mention China. It is generally brought up in the context of competition, which I largely see as a good thing for the development of the continent. Certainly there are problems that have come out of it, look no further than Sudan. AFP's take:

The freshened focus on Africa comes as China increasingly funnels investment toward the continent, seeking to bolster its diplomatic footprint partly as a route to new energy sources. But some analysts worry that China's billions of investment dollars, often spent on infrastructure projects, do not come with the same good governance strings attached as US and European help.

Wrapping it All Up

The strategy itself says very little. The US wants to support economic development, democracy, trade and peace. They could have saved a lot of paper and time just saying that. However, the document is welcome as it provides a general framework that can be applied to whomever assumes leadership following the 2012 elections. President Obama has made only one visit to SSA since assuming office. Given the situation in Sudan, the crisis in the Sahel, Mali's coup and internal strife, the DRCs ongoing problems in the east and Somalia's instability it seems that a second visit is long overdue.

Here is the full PDF version of the US Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa

Tom Murphy is a former aid worker who blogs about development, aid, and healthcare reform on "A View From the Cave."

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