You know something is already on the wrong foot when the stated goal of an international conference is “to start a new chapter.” President Obama invited African leaders to Washington to talk about U.S.-Africa relations, but when some fifty of them showed up this week to, one guesses, get an advance copy of the new script, the best he could do was tell them U.S. companies were prepared to invest $14 billion on the Continent, of which investment a third will (reportedly) be coming from Coca-Cola.
That may be worrisome for some African soft drink bottlers, but it is otherwise without much consequence. The time frame and conditions for these investments were left vague, and anyway there is the question of where White House press aides get these figures? Do they ask companies to submit business plans and add them up?
The very fact that the administration’s African theme this week is “a new chapter” provokes the uncomfortable feeling that our Africa policy, and its Top Man in particular, the President himself, does not have a chapter outline. He does not have a book outline. He and his Africa hands, who whenever a new crisis erupts are invariably all thumbs, merely have a vague notion of the outline of a continent that, to paraphrase the Mexican proverb about us, is at once so close and so far away.
Africa, with a population of a billion projected to double over the next fifty years, has evolved economically in the past generation, and if the old standby of most people living on a dollar a day without adequate clean water and electricity still holds, it must be complemented by reference to the emergence of big middle class sectors in many countries. Is it in our national interest for this trend to continue? Probably so. What to do to encourage it? It certainly does not appear that anyone in the White House devotes much gray matter to this question.
If you do not know what to do, inviting everybody to dinner to kick some ideas around may be a way to generate ideas. But if you invite fifty leaders and have a fancy dinner on the White House lawn (there was not enough room inside, apparently, so they moved the party to a tent outside), your guests are as likely to think you really just want them to enjoy themselves and relax, not brainstorm development economics.
The Obama administration ran out of luck in every foreign policy theater: after coasting during a couple years of its first term on the reserves the Bush administration had left in our accounts. Its biggest initiative in Africa – going to war in Libya with our French and British allies – failed, and the failure caused violence to spread in the Sahel region south of the Sahara, where it persists.
Obama’s palming of the region’s problems on to an alleged private sector with $14 billion to spend could be another feeble attempt at showing against all evidence that he still has a grip on American foreign policy. The money he talked about is, however, rather frivolous. Africa, according to organizations like Transparency International, loses several times that number every year in funds intended for private and public investment that get spirited away into the personal accounts of regime potentates and their families (which usually means extended networks). In 2011, according to the Washington-based think tank Global Financial Integrity, $76.9 billion left Africa illegally.
Global Financial Integrity is a Washington, D.C. think-tank that is partial to market solutions for economic growth. Its research focuses on illegal financial flows. Ten times more money leaves the developing countries than they receive in foreign aid, according to GFI research.
Some perspective is surely needed here. Illegal financial flows, illicit capital flight, are not untypically provoked by states with high tax policies. African regimes are not as a rule unfriendly toward entrepreneurs, but they expect to take their cuts, both legal and informal. It is not surprising that companies should try to get money out when they can. Money laundering and bribery and the rest make the rules of economic behavior arbitrary.
But what this means is that the no longer “new nations” that emerged from the colonial period still have not established themselves as viable states. The underlying cause of Africa’s travails is not poverty but insecurity. Security, not soft drinks, is what an American president concerned about Africa should be talking about.
Of the 50 states represented at the White House party, most have yet to show they can be relied upon to maintain reliable frameworks in which economies can grow. And it seems unlikely we can help them with this with our notion that what they need is aid. The way we promote private sector investment falls within the aid concept, otherwise why would it be the White House that announces new private sector investments?
Africans are not paupers. They can take care of themselves. Rule of law, contracts, fair labor practices, transparency in the tax system and other critical functions make their way, not so much because we urge them to, but because people demand it. They know their leaders are lawless strongmen, and while they do not mind seeing their countries recognized at a White House function, they do not give credit to the rascals enjoying themselves there.
Many of the guests at the White House “new chapter” fête are resolutely sticking to the only page they feel they need, which is that once you are in power, your goal is to stay in power. That is the key to amassing prestige and wealth for yourself and the extended families that are counting on you.
It would be impolite to name names, but there were some pretty disreputable people at this White House dinner. The President did not go into any details regarding their records. The criteria he has for the evolution of American democracy do not impinge on his thinking about African governance. And he may well be right on this.
Indeed, it may be that the reason for this unprecedented gathering is that Barack Obama really does not like his African homologues, and wants to avoid the experience of inviting them to Washington for one-on-one chats. He said, essentially, we have some big companies in our country who would like to do business with you, so here is your chance. He stayed focused on this. He did not mention American military missions which patiently are working to create a secure environment on the Continent.
Actually, the U.S. military is involved throughout Africa in training security forces and sometimes accompanying them as advisors on the battlefield. The president did not mention this, even though our military assistance may well be our most effective aid program, making possible whatever else we might want to do, from the private or the public sector side. But it is not a chapter he wrote, having inherited the Africa Command and its long-term security cooperation strategy from the previous administration. At least he seems to recognize that $14 billion in investments, or whatever fantasy number someone in the White House concocts for PR purposes, will never materialize if there is no security.