In Sub-Saharan Africa, Barack Obama is not much of a political figure. In fact, he’s much more than a political figure. To see a man with a Kenyan father hold one of the most powerful positions in the world is empowering, especially in a world where success traditionally belongs to white Westerners and, increasingly, to the businessmen and businesswomen of the East. Obama has become an icon for the continent; he’s a t-shirt slogan and is idolized by teenagers. When it comes to policies, however, citizens of African nations are either disappointed—as demonstrated by the protests in Johannesburg this past summer—or ambivalent. Often people are tempted to ask, “What policies?”
But with President Obama’s trip to Africa this past June and July, his administration seems to be making a concerted effort to change that. Speaking to a crowd in Johannesburg, Obama produced a plan to spend $7 billion on bringing clean energy to un-electrified areas in six countries hand-picked for their good governance: Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania. American companies like General Electric have committed to contribute an additional $9 billion towards projects that, over the next five years, can provide hundreds of megawatts to these nations.
There are many things to be said about international aid and investments, like this program, as well as many questions to be asked. The first and foremost might be: “Why?” Aid programs are a headache, and, time and time again, development projects have failed after external impetus for change didn’t encourage internal change. There is no moral obligation on the part of the United States to engage in each and every circumstance of inadequate welfare. But aid done right is mutually beneficial. There’s often a stigma against gain on the part of the donor in aid relationships, but if an aid program is capable of stimulating the recipient nation’s economy and providing the donor with enhanced diplomatic relations or economic benefits of their own, then that is a positive thing. This is not to say that donor nations should exploit the natural resources of developing countries, but, rather, that there is room for a non-exploitative behavior and domestic economic advantages. Aid programs encourage diplomacy, or at the very least dialogue, and in a continent like Africa, where the breadth of cultures and politics is enormous and unique, it would only serve the United States well to establish relationships with these countries.
I think it’s incredibly valuable, then, that President Obama has asserted in the past few months that the nations of Africa are more than open hands to drop money into and, rather, partners that should be invested in.
But in the time it took the United States to look to Africa as more than a “one and done” mission trip destination, other nations have come to the table with their own justifications for donation. Despite the United States explicitly holding its position as the world’s biggest donor, many other nations outshine the United States in terms of a relationship with the nations of sub-Saharan Africa. If you turn on the BBC, you’re far more likely to find a story analyzing the differences between Indian and Chinese investment in African nations than any story about the United States in the area.
Chinese investors, whether they’re government agencies or corporations, use economics as a justification for their foreign investment practices. Take a country like Uganda, where American relations are particularly limited because of the present state of corruption. The Chinese government is engaged in the construction of a toll highway along one of the most popular routes, from the southeast half of the country to the airport—a route that will save commuters several hours of travel time and quite a bit of fuel money. Ugandan marketplaces are flooded with Chinese-made electronics, from solar panels to cell phones. This infusion of Chinese money doesn’t come in an aid bundle nor does it bring any goals of broad social change, but what it does do is provide previously unavailable services and even jobs.
The United States is in a good position moving forward; our president is already a strong role model. We have the resources. And I would prompt policy-makers to go a step further in establishing these sorts of relationships now and say this: Don’t discriminate. It’s often the case that those countries without the good governance records and anti-corruption efforts of Tanzania or Ghana are those that are the most severely underdeveloped. The countries that were absent from the Obamas’ visit could use some alternatives to the current infrastructures for development, which, as the president has asserted, are less than effective and less than fair. The foundation of good governance is often a well-educated and vocal middle class, and growing economic opportunities could foster just that. Throwing money into a sinkhole accomplishes nothing, but there is gray area between excluding a country from an aid and investment program and handing them a blank check.
Aid is a powerful thing that deserves to be more than a publicity stunt, and I hope that President Obama’s interest in renewing relationships with the nations of Africa is one that doesn’t wane as he serves the last three years of his presidency.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her biweekly column will run every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.