Today, January 20, 2009, Barack Obama, a man of both African and American ancestry, became President of the United States. He has an abiding interest in Africa as well as African friends and relatives. President Obama will be assisted by a Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who herself has long been interested in Africa and in issues important to Africa, such as economic development and human rights. At the United Nations, the Administration will be represented by an Ambassador, Susan Rice, who was an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Bill Clinton Administration. Learning from the failures of that Administration during the Rwanda genocide, Rice has become a leading proponent of humanitarian intervention to save lives and an advocate for the international protection of human rights.
In the George W. Bush Administration, few people in top positions had shown any prior interest in Africa, and many saw the region as one of peripheral importance at best. The fact that the Obama Administration will have Africa advocates in the highest positions bodes well for the future of U.S. Africa policy. The newly expanded Democratic ranks in Congress also include many who have taken an interest in Africa over many years, and this will also tend to strengthen Africa policy as well.
American media commentators are insisting that all issues on the policy agenda are going to have to “take a back seat” to the economic crisis in the Obama Administration, and surely great attention and immense resources are going to be devoted to meeting that crisis. In foreign affairs, many perceive, correctly, that the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, Iran, and other issues are going to outrank Africa in the scale of priorities.
Nonetheless, the foreign policy machinery of the U.S. Government is vast and fully capable of an active and positive engagement with Africa, even while dealing with other issues, especially when Africa has the support of those at the top. During her January 15 confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary-designate Clinton insisted that the State Department “will be firing on all cylinders to provide forward-thinking, sustained diplomacy in every part of the world.…” With respect to Africa, she specifically mentioned Darfur, natural resource conservation, the war in Congo, “autocracy in Zimbabwe,” African democracy, and working to reach the Millennium Development Goals as issues that would receive attention. Clinton spoke forcefully of the incoming Administration’s commitment to continuing the fight against AIDS, combating climate change, and promoting economic development – mentioning microfinance as a special interest of hers. Clinton supports the appointment of special envoys for dealing with particular crises and problems. Darfur, southern Sudan, eastern Congo and possibly other situations in Africa are ripe for such appointments. Clinton, like the President-elect, supports a stronger United Nations and stronger international institutions generally – support which could also prove highly beneficial to Africa.
While a higher priority for Africa seems inevitable in the Obama Administration, the level of U.S. commitment to the region, and the quality of that commitment, remains uncertain. Where the resources for a larger effort in support of African development are going to come from in the current economic environment is far from clear, and this is a major concern. Another is that during the Bush years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was brought firmly under the control of the Department of State, with an inevitable elevation of political considerations in what ought to have been development policy decisions. Will the agency now be permitted greater autonomy and allowed to re-priortize a development agenda? A powerful Secretary of State, as Mrs. Clinton promises to be, may not be willing to let USAID slip from her control. On the other hand, as a development advocate and a friend of USAID, she may choose to spend some of her formidable political capital on reinvigorating the agency.
In the Bush Administration, development assistance became heavily focused on spending to combat AIDS, at the expense of programs in other areas essential to economic growth. AIDS spending, moreover, was controlled by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which is under the Department of State rather than USAID. No one advocates a reduction in AIDS spending – quite the contrary. But perhaps the time has come to merge PEPFAR into USAID to insure that AIDS policy and development policy are better coordinated. Through increased development spending overall, the imbalance between AIDS spending and other forms of development assistance could be redressed.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation is an independent agency providing U.S. funds to countries undertaking economic and political reforms, but it too ought to be under USAID for the sake of better policy coordination and the more effective use of scarce resources. Ideally, USAID itself would be headed by a Secretary for International Development with cabinet status – but all such changes, even if the Obama Administration should pursue them, would involve turf battles as well as complicated changes in laws that could take years to achieve. Some expect that Jacob Lew, nominated to be one of two Deputy Secretaries of State, may take on the development coordination function as an interim measure, with further reforms occurring later. Lew has impressive credentials in the areas of management and budget. Any effort to reduce U.S. farm subsidies, which tend to discourage agricultural production in Africa, would probably also occur later in the Obama Administration in view of the issue’s political sensitivity.
There may be more reason to hope that the rising influence of the Department of Defense and U.S. armed forces in Africa and Africa policy may soon begin to level off or perhaps decline. As Secretary-designate Clinton has pointed out, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will remain in office under President Obama, has himself said that the “institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long.” Clinton, with her forceful personality and political skills, may be able to win added resources for her Department, allowing the military to reduce or end its involvement in development work. At the same time, she has said that the United States must continue to combat “al Qaeda’s efforts to seek safe havens in failed states in the Horn of Africa” as well as piracy off the Somali coast – heralding a continued role for U.S. armed forces in that part of the continent.
U.S. policy toward Africa is changing, and changing in a positive direction, but overcoming resource constraints and rebuilding the institutions of economic development will likely pose challenges for years to come.