William Minter

The following analysis by William Minter of the Africa Policy Information Center goes a long way toward explaining why new U.S. promises of a new partnership with Africa have been met with widespread skepticism. This analysis is extracted from the FPIF Special Report, "United States and Africa: Starting Points for a New Policy Framework," which is posted in its entirety at: http://www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org/papers/africa/index.html)

During the cold war, U.S. policy toward Africa, including aid and economic relationships, was shaped overwhelmingly by competition with the Soviet Union. The leading recipients of U.S. aid between 1962 and 1988 were Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire--not at all the list one would choose on the basis of development goals or even in terms of prospects for trade and investment. In 1987, in an effort to define congressional goals for development assistance and in reaction to President Ronald Reagan's earlier efforts to divert money from African aid, Congress established the Development Fund for Africa (DFA) with the laudable goal of helping "the poor majority of men and women in sub-Saharan Africa to participate in a process of long-term development through economic growth that is equitable, participatory, environmentally sustainable, and self-reliant." The act also established a minimum level of funding for Africa each year. The DFA, administered as designated funds within AID, began by disbursing $562 million in 1988 and reached over $800 million annually in the early 1990s. However, for FY2000, AID requested only $513 million for the DFA--a rather paltry sum, given the level of need, DFA's objectives, and the Clinton administration's rhetoric on Africa.

If implemented, the DFA's laudable objectives would have revolutionized U.S. development assistance programs. However, in practice, Washington's cold war allies in Africa, such as Kenya and Zaire, continued to receive much of the assistance.13 During the 1990s, with no new strategic framework to replace the cold war mindset, the case for aid lost its anti-Soviet rationale, and supporters of continued or reformed development assistance struggled to find new arguments in a generally skeptical political climate. Curiously, Clinton administration "reformers" within AID chose to drop poverty alleviation (as well as education) as a rationale or "pillar," arguing that it already underlay what were articulated as the agency's six new central objectives:

* economic growth and agricultural development
* democracy and good governance
* human capacity development (other than basic education)
* health and population
* management of the environment
* providing humanitarian assistance.

The AID administrator declared that Washington's two foreign policy goals in Africa were "to accelerate Africa's integration into the global economy and to combat serious transnational security threats there, including HIV/AIDS and outbreaks of violence."

Without a convincing overall framework justifying U.S. contributions to development either worldwide or in Africa, the case for investment in African development became difficult to make. U.S. development aid to Africa declined from $826 million in 1991 to $689 million in 1997. Since 1996, Congress has refused to earmark funds specifically for Africa, leaving the regional allocation of funds to decisions within AID. For 2000, AID requested a mere $305 million (for economic support funds and child survival and disease programs) on top of the $513 million for the DFA.

During 1997 and 1998, the lion's share of the Washington debate about Africa centered on the congressional Africa Growth and Opportunity Act and the parallel presidential initiative for a "Partnership for Economic Growth and Opportunity in Africa." The act initially emerged from initiatives by liberal Democratic Representative Jim McDermott from Seattle and members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), who portrayed it as a way of getting Africa its share of U.S. trade and investment. It was then sold as a bipartisan plan and developed in conjunction with conservative Republican Representative Phil Crane. Republicans were comfortable in signing on because of the strong emphasis on support for U.S. exports and corporate investment. Sponsors presented initial versions of the act as a "paradigm shift" from aid to trade. And despite endorsements of aid, debt relief, and human rights inserted into later versions of the legislation, the bill's principal backers continued to assert that their intention was to replace aid with trade and to bring Africa into the mainstream of the world economy by using private capital as the main engine of growth.

Though the act suggested the possibility of future "free-trade" pacts with Africa, its operational provisions were in fact very limited: a regular forum for U.S. cabinet-level officials to meet with their counterparts from selected African countries; $650 million in investment funds allotted by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which provides insurance for U.S. foreign investments; extending duty-free entry for many African products, including primarily minerals and agricultural products; and elimination of import quotas for African textiles entering the United States. Those African countries and companies already well-placed to compete in a market economy would be given greater access to the U.S. market, and U.S. business with Africa would be facilitated by new contacts and subsidies.

During the 1998 legislative session, U.S. companies with interests in Africa joined with African ambassadors, the Clinton administration, and congressional backers in lobbying passionately for the bill. But resistance also grew both from critics who opposed the bill's simplistic promarket bias and from textile-state representatives who argued that import quota reductions would hurt U.S. manufacturers. Both the Congressional Black Caucus and nongovernmental Africa advocacy groups were split roughly into three camps in response to the bill, with views ranging from passionate support to adamant opposition to more nuanced positions that offered several amendments. Many of those who supported the bill did so because they hoped it would help Africa get a larger slice of the global market by promoting "equal opportunity" among exporting nations. Opponents saw little benefit for ordinary Africans in the bill and feared considerable damage from its emphasis on strict free market macroeconomic policies.

The vehemence of the debate can only be understood as contention related to broader symbolic issues. For many proponents, the main intent was to counter Africa's marginalization by rejecting the "aid seen as welfare" model and insisting on Africa's incorporation into the current economic mainstream through expanded trade and investment. But most opponents rejected that mainstream model as damaging to African grassroots interests and long-term development prospects. "Structural adjustment" packages imposing similar policies have a mixed record at best in promoting economic growth, and they exact a high price from ordinary citizens in the form of cutbacks of government programs and a rising cost of living. Yet the critique, for the most part, failed to acknowledge that passage of this particular bill would add little to the pressures already felt by African countries from internationally imposed structural adjustment programs, the conditionality of bilateral aid programs, and Africa's lack of competitive clout in the world marketplace. As CBC Chairperson Maxine Waters commented in floor debate, both proponents and opponents should recognize that this bill is neither "the best thing" nor "the worst thing" that could happen to Africa.

In 1999, the level of debate advanced somewhat with the introduction of the alternate HOPE for Africa Act by Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. This act calls on the U.S. to cancel all its bilateral debt with sub-Saharan African countries and to urge that the IMF and World Bank cancel Africa's multilateral debts without any linkage to structural adjustment programs. It therefore provides a positive vehicle behind which critics of the Growth and Opportunity Act can rally. Still the fact that there continues to be division within the Congressional Black Caucus and within the Africa advocacy community has left the fate of both bills in limbo. Neither bill provides a viable comprehensive framework for expansion of mutually beneficial U.S.-African economic relations. Thus, although congressional support for additional debt reduction is growing in response to public pressure, the chance of successful action even on this unifying issue has been reduced by the lack of coordination between different congressional initiatives.

Although Africa clearly does need more trade and investment, the real issues are what type of trade and what actions are needed to attract capital. The recipe prescribed by free market fundamentalism is simple: remove trade barriers, offer incentives to foreign investors, and greatly reduce the role of government in regulating the economy, and economic growth will follow. Critics, however, argue that sustainable and equitable economic growth requires that production be geared for local and regional consumption, not simply for overseas export markets; that locally-owned industries and enterprises must be supported; and that substantial new investments are needed in both human and physical infrastructure. The reality is that private capital is not going to make the necessary investments in education, health care, clean and accessible water, electricity, roads, ports, airports, etc.; such infrastructure requires government planning and development cooperation from international agencies.

(Minter is the Senior Research Fellow at the Africa Policy Information Center in Washington, DC.)

Back to Top

Back to Politics Directory