Harary: Improving African Aid

by Paul Harary | 7/30/15 7:54pm

When President Barack Obama arrived in Nairobi last Friday, he was greeted by thousands of Kenyans flooding the streets in celebration of his arrival. Although the atmosphere was festive, there was an undercurrent of tension throughout the visit. In the past year, the country has enacted policies targeting gays and lesbians as well as ethnic minority groups. The unease surrounding these issues came to a head during a press conference where Obama said, “When you start treating people differently, because they’re different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode.” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta voiced his disagreement, saying, “There are some things that we must admit we don’t share — our culture, our societies don’t accept”. This awkward exchange, a mixture of diplomacy and defensiveness, is emblematic of the complex relationship between the United States and Africa.

Africa is often described as the world’s most homophobic continent, with same-sex relations declared illegal in 38 of its 54 countries and punishable by death in four. In 2014 alone, Uganda, Gambia and Nigeria introduced new homophobic legislation that banned gay-rights groups and the “promotion” of homosexuality.

At the same time, the continent is also the biggest destination for U.S. aid. As expressed by the United Nations Economic Commission, nowhere else is there as much potential for development and as many people who lack basic necessities, such as clean water, food and shelter. According to the 2015 African Economic Outlook Report, the continent’s economy as a whole is predicted to grow by five percent in 2016 with an anticipated doubling in population by 2050. Supporting this rapid advancement will not only be beneficial to Africans but also promises to open new markets to U.S. trade and investment.

As it stands, the U.S. Agency for International Development is planning to spend $10.7 billion in the 2016 fiscal year on crises funds, development, disaster, medical and food assistance. Although many Americans are quick to condemn sending money overseas, foreign aid in reality accounts for only about a quarter of a percent of the total federal budget. In contrast, U.S. defense spending accounts for a 20 percent of government spending.

The real problem is with how USAID money is being spent in Africa, not with how much is being spent. A large portion of USAID dollars end up in the pockets of powerful politicians while doing little for the vast majority of people, who continue to endure poor living conditions. One need only recall Sese Seko — the Zairean president who was reputed to have stolen $5 billion from his country — to grasp the enormity of this problem. Considering these serious issues, how can the American government best explore the opportunities presented by Africa’s economic potential and aid its people?

The answer lies in using nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. USAID should start looking at aid spending as an investment rather than as charity. Presently, African countries are paying almost $20 billion in repayments per year while relying on international assistance. This vicious cycle can be broken by channeling foreign investment into infrastructure and industrial development rather than by distributing it as handouts. For example, each year millions of dollars worth of American-grown food is shipped to Africa. Instead, these funds should be used to buy produce from African farmers, which will promote growth within the agricultural industry and break dependency on foreign aid.

A shift of funds away from government-to-government aid would allow the U.S. to avoid appearing as if it is implicitly condoning the human rights abuses perpetrated by many African regimes. As it now stands, attaching political caveats to governmental aid could strengthen the perception that the U.S. is trying to strong-arm African leaders into accepting American attitudes. In contrast, efforts to combat injustice through native NGOs have been more successful. Instead of trying to persuade foreign governments to abandon prejudiced legislation, the U.S. should adopt a ground-up approach by supporting local organizations. Ultimately, the American government should aim to assist African economic development and advocate for human rights while being mindful not to impose American policies in the process.