Out of Africa, a political sequel

Scarcely three years ago, while in his presidential campaign, it was Mr. Bush who said “while Africa may be important, it does not fit into the national strategic interests, as far as I can see them.” That vision thing… just like his dad!

Could it be that the President is no longer geographically-challenged? One might recall that in those pre-presidential days, for Bush, Africa was not a continent, calling it a country. Could things have changed so much that just yesterday (Thursday) Colin Powell was heralding to the planet, “ Africa is a priority to President Bush”?

Africans appear to be scratching their heads as to the whys and wherefores of Bush’s trip. Is it “the oil thing”? Is it “the compassionate thing”? Could it be “the terrorist thing”? Or, could it have to do with “the image thing”? Or, is it perhaps “the election thing”? Most Africans I have come across bet against the compassionate reason, although they are quick to concede they wish to be proven wrong.

Sub-Saharan Africa is in dire need of help. Relative to the United States, their GNI per capita stands at just one-eighth ($460); life expectancy of their people is 28 years lower barely reaching 49; literacy rate stands at 62%, versus 97% in the US; only half of its population has clean water; and the per capita medical resources are but one-tenth of those in the United States (in health expenditures, number of doctors, etc.) And to crown this dismal situation, the overall HIV infection rate for the region is 15 times that in the United States. Sub-Saharan people definitely could use any and all help Mr. Bush can offer on our behalf.

Rich nations in general and the United States in particular, have often promised to help poor countries achieve some measure of prosperity for their people. Yet, the poorest 50 nations in the world have seen a decrease in the standard of living of two decades ago, with sub-Sahara Africa also sliding backwards in this past decade.

Few policy changes have taken place in wealthy nations with reference to aid, debt relief or trade. And although lofty goals were established in the United Nations Millennium Summit of 2000, nothing of consequence has started to happen since then. Perhaps the world has been waiting for America to exert some form of leadership, to lead the way. But unless Bush’s trip to Africa augurs a new direction, the United States, when it comes to help for Third World countries, is no role model as a giver of either help or hope.

Contrary to the perception that most Americans have of themselves as providers of help to the needy of the world, the United States stands at the tail end of the compassionate spectrum among the 21 richest countries in the world, only New Zeeland giving less aid on a per capita basis. However, it would be an impossible sell to convince Americans that most other rich nations give 6 to 8 times what we give (i.e.: “hated” France $27.59 per person vs. US $3.29) as we allow the myth of our generosity to perpetuate; inconceivable, but true.

Without qualms, Africans will remind us not only of our miserly efforts in affording help, but of the economic harm some of the US domestic agricultural policies (subsidies) have created for some African countries. Recently, Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali, all very poor and dependant on cotton production, suffered a drop in their GDP due to the dumping of US-subsidized cotton in the world markets.

Beyond the ceremonies and the protocol, Africans show a much different face in their trust and respect for Bush. Any misgivings or skepticism they may have about America are readily accentuated by the man who leads this nation, a man seen by them as one who in the last election could barely muster one in ten of the African-American vote.

Africans know, and they will bluntly tell you, that the United States always writes the rules. They know that any aid that they might get from the United States would have to be almost totally spent in overpriced US goods and services (over 90%, versus an average of 50% for other donor nations). So when they hear Bush talk about the possibility of the United States granting billions of dollars to combat AIDS, they smirk at the prospect of being the conduit through which some American pharmaceutical companies will really become the true recipients of aid. But the poor have little in the way of choices, and they will take anything they can get.

As the trip comes to an end, it must be said that Africans are not as critical of the United States as much as they are toward the economic and military policies, and pressures, the current administration seem to pursue with Third World countries.

It is still questionable in my mind whether Mr. Bush is being maligned by most Africans for his impudence in world affairs or for his lack of knowledge and savoir faire. A banner in Pretoria summed up the latter as it read: “A village in Texas is missing its idiot.” Many of the people in Pretoria thought they were seeing him on Wednesday.