Africa at the threshold

July 7, 2009

john-simon– John Simon was recently U.S. Ambassador to the African Union and former Executive Vice President of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.  He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington DC. The views expressed are his own. —

President Obama’s trip to Ghana highlights one of Africa’s leading success stories – a country that has held five consecutive democratic elections, recently transferring power peacefully to the opposition after it won a razor thin victory.

Ghana is not alone. Sub-Saharan countries made tremendous progress in the past decade. Freedom House ranks seven out of ten of Sub-Saharan countries as free or partly free. Through 2007, Africa experienced 10 years of uninterrupted economic growth, the last five at rates above 5 percent. Foreign capital inflows increased from only $7 billion in 2002 to $53 billion in 2007.

Yet continued progress is not inevitable.  If Africa is to realize its potential, the hard work Africans have exerted over the past decade to improve the continent’s governance and economic policies must continue, and despite the myriad of pressing issues elsewhere, engagement by the international community in general, and the United States in particular, cannot flag.

Supporting Africa’s progress is not just about providing additional aid.  Aid is an important element for financing Africa’s development, but aid flows to Sub-Saharan Africa have nearly tripled since 2000 and will quadruple by 2010 if donor commitments made at the Gleneagles G-8 Summit are met.  More important now are efforts to help Africa increase its trade, solidify democratic norms through its own institutions, and resolve its remaining conflicts.

The United States can lead the world to provide an immediate benefit to Africa through trade.  The stalling of the Doha Development Round of trade talks is a missed opportunity that would have been worth billions of dollars for Africa.  Yet all is not lost – the United States could agree to implement those aspects of the Doha package that will benefit Africa now without waiting for a final deal with all WTO members.

This means eliminating domestic agricultural subsidies. The U.S. has held out on conceding these economically unjustifiable programs for a comprehensive deal, which would offer our farmers greater access to emerging markets like China and India.  But with deficits exceeding $1 trillion, we can no longer afford these $20 billion programs that mostly benefit fewer than 200,000 large farms at the expense of millions of poor farmers across the globe.  Acting now will counter the impact on Africa of the global financial crisis, which threatens to stop Africa’s economic progress in its tracks, and give us standing to insist the EU follow by opening up its massive market to African agricultural products.

Now is a critical time for African democracy as well.  In 2009, sixteen African countries went or will go to the polls for presidential or parliamentary elections.  The African Union (AU) intends to monitor them all.  Ensuring the AU has the resources and staff to not only validate the results on election day, but to do the pre-election assessments that encourage a level playing field will raise the standards for democracy on the continent and make likely more examples of the peaceful transfer of power most recently witnessed in Ghana.

Finally, the U.S. needs to use its voice in the United Nations to increase support for peacekeeping on the continent.  Done right, peacekeeping can lead to dramatic successes, as has been the case in Liberia and Sierra Leone.  Liberia initially had 17,000 peacekeepers for a population of 3 million people, giving the peacekeepers enough firepower to dissuade any “spoilers.” 

Compare that to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a similar number of peacekeepers are seeking to stabilize a country of 66 million people 21 times the land area of Liberia; or Somalia, which currently only has slightly more than 4,000 peacekeepers for a country of more than 7 million. In such instances, spoilers can outgun the peacekeepers and gain prestige by attacking them. Many will argue that peacekeeping budgets are limited, which is true, but the cost of new funding for peacekeeping pales beside the cost of failing to keep the peace.

Africa has achieved much in the last ten years.  If this decade is to be a precursor of sustained development success in the future instead of a temporary hiatus from the steady decline of the past, its friends need to act now to support Africa’s leaders and institutions in establishing peace and security, raising democratic standards, and integrating the continent into the global economy.


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