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?
Critics of current aid policies, most prominently economist Dambisa Moyo, say that the decades of humanitarian assistance have stunted the development of both human and real capital in nations that receive money from the West. Aid, she writes, “has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.”
Moyo’s view is controversial. But the idea that there are problems with the West’s African aid policy is not. A recently released internal report criticizing the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs observed that HIV/AIDS programs “spend more on medication than prevention,” and that, while the U.S. sends millions of pounds of food to feed Africans, “it is not focusing as it might on helping Africans feed themselves” through agricultural development and fair trade practices. Building schools alone does not create an educated class of Africans. In short, the United States spends too much time putting out fires and not enough time building fire hydrants.
What makes this state of affairs all the more urgent is that there is now a competitor for the attention, resources, and capacity of African nations. As Clinton’s questioner mentioned, the Chinese government has persistently invested in trade and direct investment in African countries, from Zambia to Tanzania to Kenya. China has pledged to increase its trade volume with the continent to $100 billion in the next decade. As I wrote in a previous report probing the Sino-African partnership, “This dynamic does not apply to every country in Africa, or to every Chinese business deal. But despite uncomfortable echoes of imperialism, in practice China is the only global power laying the tracks for an Africa-wide economic renaissance.”
Granted, the Chinese government has no interest in human rights issues or the good governance standards that the U.S. frequently requires of its trade and aid partners. From China, “there have been no pretences that this is about development per se, or humanitarian assistance per se,” says Daphne Wysham of the liberal Institute for Policy Studies. “It’s solely about business transactions.” But the U.S. role in this economic ménage à trois is also primarily motivated by profit. “We hear about all of the problems in Africa,” says Wysham, “and what we don’t hear is the role of our corporations in aggravating and contributing to these problems.”
Why not enc ourage U.S. corporations to do more? And the U.S. has a number of policies that are supposed to be helping the growth of the African private sector. The
Overseas Private Investment Corporation is tasked with mobilizing western corporations such as AIG and Citibank to invest in African companies, from water bottling facilities in Cameroon to microfinanciers in Uganda. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, passed in the last months of President Bill Clinton’s tenure, is designed to boost trade partnerships with the continent. But administration of the program, according to that same State Department report on African affairs, currently suffers from “poorly developed infrastructure, a lack of affordable credit, weak merchandising, and an inability to meet U.S. phytosanitary regulations."
Of course, the problems of inefficiency, corruption and graft in African countries inflate the costs of market entry for Western capitalists. Speaking at the eighth annual African Growth and Opportunity Act forum in Nairobi, Secretary of State Clinton said, correctly, that “good governance and adherence to the rule of law … is critical to creating positive, predictable investment climates and inclusive economic growth.” What this means in practice: Any country wishing for American dollars—from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, for example—must work toward goals such as free and fair elections, or gender parity in grade school. These are worthy aims, but as a result, less U.S. investment makes it to Africa. Some 38 African nations are excluded from receiving assistance from OPIC, for example, including Angola, Nigeria and Egypt—all of which China and other partners, such as Russia and India, have been more than happy to invest in and trade with.
The rising influence of other major economies on the continent has made the choice to go the aid-only route all the more damaging to long-term U.S. interests in Africa. What’s more, the morality play is often disingenuous: “We are continually acting as though our mission is one of humanitarian assistance and development when in fact we’re objectively going after the same resource, which is oil and gas,” says Wysham. In July 2007, the International Crisis Group reported that the U.S. and Western nations were more concerned about securing access to mineral rights than they were to making development happen.
American public and private investments in Africa total around $104 billion annually—but 95 percent of these investments are for oil. Clinton’s strategic visit to Angola—which is as unfree and underdeveloped as North Korea but is now China’s largest source of petroleum—shows how much resources matter to the U.S. In fact, the U.S. is planning on quadrupling its oil imports from Nigeria over the next 20 years, in an effort to rely less on “unstable” regions of the world. It’s not mentioned that the proposed Nigerian drilling will be offshore, to avoid the instability that Dutch company Shell Oil has helped to create in the Niger Delta.
Clinton, no doubt well-briefed on all of these matters, said many of the right words at the African Growth and Opportunity Act forum: “As Africa’s largest trading partner, we are committed to trade policies that support prosperity and stability,” she said. “To echo President Obama’s words: We want to be your partner, not your patron.” She rightly pointed out that even modest increases in Africa’s share of global trade (currently only 2 percent) “would generate additional export revenues each year greater than the total amount of annual assistance that Africa currently receives.” But in this global recession, foreign direct investment in Africa is down by 18 percent. As usual, the U.S. has failed to show much confidence in African markets.
What’s to be done? Clinton walks a tough line: Her mandate is diplomatic, not economic (although she traveled with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, don’t expect Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to tour the continent anytime soon). In the Congo, “the Obama administration can distinguish itself” not through aid, says Carney, but “by being aggressively involved on a diplomatic level and by laying out a political framework for reconciliation.” In other words, it should treat African companies as respectable partners—just as Clinton wished to be treated at her Congolese news conference. Increasingly, it’s becoming a matter of regional pride. “Governments throughout Africa say they ought to have the freedom to choose who they engage with, whether it’s the Chinese or the Americans,” Carney said. “This has been the challenge of the Congo since 1885.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.