All James Bond villains are alike. They’re almost always some 50-something smarmy white guy who has some weird personal tick (rubs a cat, has a bloody eyeball, a fetish for blond Aryan men, something) and thinks he’s bigger than the government.
The plot almost always revolves around said villain promising something great for the entire planet—free water, clean energy, communications tech or some program that will help the poor—only for us to discover about halfway through the movie that the plan involves stealing the world’s grain, poisoning Congress or invalidating millions of Chipotle gift cards.
The point is that villains step in when decent elected governments fail, which is exactly what we’re seeing right now with corporate activity in Africa in the new Trump era.
It’s open season on the Motherland again, and President Donald Trump is selling tickets.
George W. Bush’s administration, followed by President Barack Obama’s, improved American relations with Africa by leaps and bounds (as much as any former colonial power driven by global corporations can). More equitable business relationships were established, African leaders were invited to Washington, D.C., and generally engagement with the continent advanced beyond soliciting donations for starving children. Once Obama made it clear that the U.S. would treat Africa with more respect, corporations began to follow suit, leading to increased humanitarian efforts along with the profit motive. But under Trump, all of that advancement will pretty much come to a screeching halt.
The Trump administration has demonstrated an ineptness regarding foreign policy that would get you kicked out of a high school Model UN conference, with the president and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, failing in even the most basic elements of protocol. Early signs indicate that the Trump administration sees Africa as a country (that delivered black immigrants for about 400 years) where foreign aid should be tied only to fighting terrorism or advancing U.S. business interests, not humanitarian aid or human rights.
To put this into perspective, the U.S. gives $3.1 billion a year in aid to Israel and $1.4 billion a year to Egypt, but only $8 billion a year spread among 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. So when Trump wants to cut aid to Africa but has no problem selling fighter planes to Nigeria to fight Boko Haram, despite that country’s questionable human rights record (Obama had scrapped the deal), who will step into the humanitarian breach? Private corporations that are often up to no good.
Take Unilever, for example—a company that on paper is concerned with issues of sustainability, diversity and environmental justice across Africa. Yet when you peel away the surface, the company routinely gouges African satellite offices by doubling or tripling fees for the right to make Unilever products, overcharges for consumer goods and engages in transfer pricing to the continent.
But that company isn’t the only one. PepsiCo, hot off its stint with #BLM liberalism, has a rather fizzy history in Africa, too. Despite claiming to work for development and sustainability in Africa, the company still regularly employs local agents who steal sugar farmland and routinely use violence to suppress worker rights.
Oil companies across the globe regularly portray themselves as saving Africa by handing out a few scholarships and providing hard hat photo ops with African businesspeople. Then they get down to the business of poisoning the local environment and creating wealth that seldom trickles down to the regular people. Coal, uranium and even some natural gas companies engage in similar tactics, sometimes resorting to fomenting war and ethnic fighting to ensure that profits are met. While foreign aid from the United Nations and the United States certainly doesn’t come without strings, those strings are much less likely to choke the average African citizen than the bait-and-switch offerings of global corporations.
While many African Americans have an “affinity” for Africa, there isn’t the kind of organized lobbying and passion for any one country there along the lines of Jewish Americans’ feelings toward Israel or Mexican Americans’ towards Mexico. Part of this is because of slavery and systemic racism in public education; most black American have no idea what their connections to Africa are. Even more insidiously, many don’t know what the significance of a healthy sub-Saharan African continent means to the well-being of black people in America. Consequently, we sit idly by jumping from hashtag to hashtag without realizing that the current administration is paving the way for more exploitation of one of the most open and hospitable environments for African-American entrepreneurship.
Fortunately, no one is pointing a death ray at Washington, D.C., from Kampala, Uganda; a sentient-robot army isn’t being launched from Accra, Ghana; and no shadowy bald man with an Eastern European accent attempted to piggyback mind-control waves on the World Cup telecast from Johannesburg. But just because the villains aren’t obvious and bold doesn’t mean that Africa isn’t at risk of exploitation from private corporations, or that America can’t have some say in the matter. It’s time we took African aid more seriously and held this administration, despite its faults, accountable for setting the standard for aid moving forward.