President Obama’s Economic Strategy for Africa: Aid-Plus but Will It Last?

See below for a guest post from MFAN partner Sarah Jane Staats, director of the Rethinking U.S. Foreign Assistance Project at the Center for Global Development. This post originally appeared on the CGD blog.

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The United States’ strategy towards Africa has shifted from “how much aid” to how to attract trade and investment, said White House Deputy National Security Advisor Michael Froman in a major speech (see video below) at the Center for Global Development this week. The standing-room only crowd seemed to welcome the emphasis on aid-plus, or more than aid approaches in Sub-Saharan Africa. CGD President Nancy Birdsall praised the administration’s “excellent vision” around the tough issues of economic growth and equal opportunity. The strategy does a great job of capturing the Obama administration’s efforts over the last three and a half years. But forecasting whether more of the vision (and which parts) can become reality in the remainder of this US presidential term and beyond will be difficult.

Froman, just back from leading a ten-day trip to Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Nigeria began his CGD remarks with a refresher on the Obama administration’s efforts in Sub-Saharan Africa: President Obama’s 2009 speech in Ghana, food security and child survival commitments, the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, and the White House-led Partnership for Growth effort in Ghana and Tanzania.

In his remarks, Froman focused on economic growth, trade and investment (one of four pillars in the administration’s new strategy towards Africa and the result of a presidential policy directive that presumably replaces National Security Presidential Directive 50 signed in 2006 by President Bush). Froman spoke of the difference in the US government’s approach to the region from when he traveled to Africa as a Treasury official nearly fifteen years ago. “If there is one way to summarize the change, it is that the focus has shifted from how much aid will be provided to how best to create the enabling environment for the trade and investment necessary to drive broad-based economic growth—the only true path toward development,” he argued.

CGD President Nancy Birdsall encouraged event attendees to disseminate the “really good vision” embodied in Froman’s remarks, “that development is about more than assistance, it includes assistance of course, but fundamentally it’s about growth, equal opportunity, governance—the tough issues.”  She added her hope that members of the development community will follow the implementation of that vision “independent of what happens in our own elections this fall.” (Birdsall also encouraged Froman to consider two additional development approaches: payments for measured progress against reductions in transit times akin to the Cash on Delivery Aid idea, or direct cash payments–from developing country governments to their citizens–for oil revenues as explained in CGD’s Oil2Cash initiative.)

It’s great to hear more about the Obama administration’s aid-plus efforts towards Africa from a senior White House official, especially given the expectations that a President Obama would do much in the region. And while the move beyond just aid has been a long time coming, it’s good to see it still going in that direction.  I agree with Nancy Birdsall that the focus now shifts to implementation. But I am perhaps a bit more worried about how much time is left in this presidential term to make the good vision a reality, and what happens next.

Here are a few bright spots:

  • The FY13 budget reflects the strategy’s food security and child survival priorities.
  • The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, led by USAID, brokers regulatory and policy reforms to attract private investment.
  • The House and Senate passed versions of a bill (HR 5986 and S 3326) yesterday that extend some African trade preferences under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (and adds South Sudan to the list of countries eligible for AGOA).

But there are some clouds:

  • The House and Senate have already passed a six-month continuing resolution, acknowledging that they won’t make any real progress on the FY13 budget before the fiscal year begins on October 1st.  (For more on the budget, check out USGLC’s excellent new Budget Watch.)
  • We’re still waiting for evidence that the policy and regulatory reforms in the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition take place and that the private sector investments follow. (I’m hoping if I’ve missed something, readers will point me to evidence this is underway!)
  • The good vision isn’t codified or supported by a bipartisan Congress in contrast, for example, to the Millennium Challenge Corporation and President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief created during the Bush administration. (And while it’s a good thing this administration hasn’t set up new agencies–like the MCC and PEPFAR–that would add to the fragmentation and proliferation of aid agencies, the good vision without a clear home can more easily be washed away.)

My hope is that the bright spots and work underway will keep moving the good vision to reality, and that the reality of US politics won’t get in the way. Ideally, the good vision is strong enough to outlive a change in personnel (which will happen even in a second Obama administration) or a total change in administration.

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