Where’s the Beef in Africa?

Hillary Clinton’s tiff with a Congolese student obscures the real American mission in Africa: economic development.


On Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo—part of a seven-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa—a flurry of attention focused on her sharp reply to a local student who seemed to question her role as chief diplomat of the United States. All the attention overshadowed the substance of the student’s question, which concerned mining contracts between China and Congo. It was another missed opportunity to discuss the one issue that could really make a difference in Congo and the other failing states of Africa: foreign direct investment and private-sector economic development.

Just weeks after President Barack Obama’s brief stop in Accra, Ghana, Clinton’s 10-day jaunt echoed similar themes but was by far the more hands-on experience. In South Africa and in Kenya, she emphasized the dynamic economies of each country, pushing for more and better growth. In Somalia, she met with President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, an embattled but critical ally in fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa. In Nigeria and Liberia, she stressed good governance, the democratic process and the rule of law: “I think the people of Liberia should continue to speak out against corruption,” she said at her meeting with Liberian head of state Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, adding: “The United States officially supports what this government is doing.”

Yet for all of the bold statements and fluency with local issues that Clinton and her entourage brought to Africa, the trip looked a lot like jaunts previously taken by other U.S. diplomats. Visiting health clinics and housing projects as well as the national assemblies of her host nations, Clinton assumed the mantle of humanitarian-in-chief.

There’s no doubt that Clinton brings passion and eloquence to this role. During her visit to the Congo, she placed particular emphasis on the prevention of sexual violence in the country. With forceful language, she decried the use of rape as a war tactic: “People need to be not only ashamed if they commit rape and other sexual violence, but they need to be arrested and prosecuted and punished so that it serves as a strong message that this will not be tolerated.”

The secretary of state has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights since her time as first lady. And the Congolese example fairly cries out for intervention. UNICEF estimates that hundreds of thousands of Congolese women and girls have been raped since 1994—more than 1,000 victims per month. Adam Hochschild, author of the indispensible King Leopold’s Ghost, recently noted that the tradition of violence stretches back to the days of Leopold’s depraved, monarchic rule:

His private army of black conscript soldiers under white officers would march into a village and hold the women hostage, to force the men to go into the rain forest for weeks at a time to harvest lucrative wild rubber. "The women taken during the last raid ... are causing me no end of trouble," a Belgian officer named Georges Bricusse wrote in his diary on November 22, 1895. "All the soldiers want one. The sentries who are supposed to watch them unchain the prettiest ones and rape them.”

In the Congo, Clinton announced a $17 million plan to fight military violence against women, specifically promoting better documentation of rapes and the training of female police officers and doctors.

The programs will help. But the real focus, says John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project and a tireless advocate against the violent conflict in eastern Congo, “should be on the fuel that drives the violence: the contest over the conflict minerals extracted from the eastern war zone and helping to power our electronics industry.” As Maurice Carney, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Congo, says, “The violence against women is inextricably linked to the conflict in the Congo, the root cause of which is the scramble for those resources.”

It’s not just that solving the nation’s dreadful economic situation may make soldiers less likely to pillage and rape. As Clinton pointed out, economic security has been historically linked to social stability and the advancement of women. (A pioneering Namibian project is tracking how "basic income" improves social outcomes.) But by constantly seeing humanitarian crises and thus military and aid-based solutions, the U.S. obscures the more important goal for any Western policy in Africa: creating sustainable trade and economic opportunity.

Since the 1950s, the West’s African policy has mostly consisted of two words: direct aid. In the last 50 years, more than $1 trillion has been sent to African nations, in the form of outright grants as well as (frequently defaulted upon) loans that are intended for infrastructure and capacity-building in recipient nations. Latin America and Asian countries likewise benefited from Western largesse—but today, as president Obama has pointed out, the African nations that received similar support are orders of magnitude behind other emerging markets. What gives?