Air Force One touched down in Senegal Wednesday evening, marking the beginning of a three-country Africa trip by President Barack Obama, designed to increase U.S. investment in the continent as well as promote development objectives and democratic governance. The trip, however, is too little too late for disillusioned Africans, whose optimism for more American engagement in the region upon Obama's election has been ignored by an administration mired in its own problems. In the face of Chinese dominance, increased security threats, and the relatively low costs, the administration should be investing energy and resources in Africa.
The irony is heavy, considering Obama's Kenyan roots and the fact that his predecessor, George W. Bush — heavily criticized for his foreign policy follies — is lauded by Africans and other world leaders for his involvement there. Between administering peace in South Sudan and fighting HIV/AIDS and malaria with a record $5 billion a year in humanitarian aid, Bush won the praise of Jimmy Carter (of all people), who claimed to be "filled with admiration."
Obama, in contrast, has done little outside of a 2009 visit to Ghana when he offered words and not much else. He has Kenyans in a "small uproar" because he will not be visiting, which is representative of his larger stance — or more aptly, non-stance — on the region. The itinerary of this "guilt trip," as some have called it, is a miss; it neglects the biggest regional powers in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Additionally, the most successful USAID development programs — Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative — are simply incarnations of previous administration's programs and are not limited to Africa in particular. The Commerce Department's "Doing Business in Africa" campaign has produced minimal results, along with USAID attempts at bolstering trade.
The larger point is that African development is simply not a priority for Obama. This is, to a certain extent, understandable. He's had a lot on his plate. Between economic crises, war, and scandal, Obama has had to prioritize, leaving Africa on the back-burner. Many argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing; Obama should be focusing on domestic crises and shoring up security at home before spending time on security around the world which has minimal impact on America.
However, it's more than that. Obama has a team; it's not like he would be carrying out these projects by himself. All he would have to do is decide to make it a priority and delegate the development of program objectives to Rajiv Shah, head of USAID, or any one of the incredibly competent, qualified Africa experts at his disposal, and it would be done. The buck stops with the president and the fact that he has not made it a priority reflects a decision not to do so.
One can speculate on the reasons why he would decide against making Africa a priority. For example, he could be attempting to avoid the perception that he is more interested in helping foreign countries than Americans. It's no stretch to imagine that news stories about effective programs abroad would be met with derision from some Americans, who would likely argue that Obama should focus on the struggles of those at home, not in distant lands. While there is surely something to be said for this, it would ignore the reality of increasing development assistance and trade in Africa.
America should be investing time and resources in Africa for several reasons. First, Chinese businesses are currently cleaning up. The government is securing hundreds of trade deals and their businesses are driving both African and Chinese growth. This is coming at the expense of the U.S. economy, where businesses are losing out on significant opportunities, as well as African workers, since Chinese labor standards are much lower than America's.
Second, the world is becoming smaller, and countries that are unable to contain militant and terrorist groups increasingly pose a threat to the larger region and world. By increasing development assistance and focusing resources on pulling people out of poverty and developing government institutions, the lure of joining militant groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the various Al-Qaeda affiliates in northern Africa will be much less of a problem. Left unchecked, these groups not only pose a horrific threat to their own people, but the world over, as we've found with Somali pirates, the ongoing crisis in Mali, and oil instability in Nigeria. Left unchecked, these threats end up costing billions of dollars and even American lives, as in the case of Somalia in 1992.
Third, it's cheap. The characterization that United States simply gives mountains of money away to foreign countries is greatly exaggerated. As mentioned above, the Bush Administration spent a record-breaking $5 billion per year on Africa ... the most ever. Does that sound like a lot? Consider that the Defense Department spends well over $600 billion per year on war, and this doesn't include billions more that were spent during Iraq and Afghanistan not included in the official budget. The development of the F-35, a cutting edge fighter jet, cost $400 billion by itself, only for the project to be abandoned.
Obama's policies on Africa are simply not cutting it. The most powerful leader in the world cannot base his policies out of fear of a backlash; he has to lead. This means doing what is right for America and the world, not whatever will prevent House Republicans from screaming and yelling (if nobody has noticed, they're going to do that no matter what). This trip is yet another unfortunate reminder that Obama's rhetoric far outpaces his administration's actions.