Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Aid Bubble and African Agency

Folks are pointing out the sea change in Western involvement in Africa. Via Africa Unchained, this from AfriCommons:

One big obstacle to aid is the politics of spending money on other nations’ problems. President Bush enjoyed a Nixon-goes-to-China credibility with conservatives, who tend to be more skeptical of foreign aid. But Obama’s low popularity among conservative voters makes it nearly impossible for him to sell an aid program to them. Reaching out in this way might feed into American stereotypes that Republicans are tougher on national security while Democrats prefer soft power.

What’s more, Americans are not in a generous mood. In a poll released last December by the Pew research organization, nearly half the Americans surveyed said that the U.S. should “mind its own business” in the world. This figure was the highest level of support for isolationism in decades. And it is not just the U.S.; polls show that this isolationism is matched in many wealthy nations in Europe and Asia, including Japan, long one of the biggest donor nations.

It is not surprising that nations such as Italy, one of the weakest industrialized economies, have slashed their aid budgets by more than 30 percent, while France has not met promised commitments, and the Obama administration has presided over reductions in the budget of the Millennium Challenge Corporation from $3 billion requested for 2008 to $1.4 billion this year.

I tend to find stories about the change in Western attitudes towards aid depressing, not because I love aid so much but because it has nothing to do with the countries that receive the aid. This article illustrates that the huge sense of foreboding I feel about Africa's future socioeconomic certainty and the question of African agency in the solving of Africa's problems. Slavery didn't stop until machinery was sophisticated enough to generate capital without using slave labour, thereby allowing for Westerners to grow a conscience. U.S. stopped its involvement with the apartheid SA government* because it stopped being socially acceptable (what with a civil rights for blacks in the U.S. and a more integrated black populace and all). In my view, aid reigned because it served to assuage the guilt of ruining these countries in the first place while providing bargaining chips in dealing with said countries (whose resources, the way, the developed world needs). Many people don't agree with my last point, but seriously, if the U.S. et al were trying to help ensure food security, the right move would be something more like encouraging the liberalization in the trade of agricultural products, not buttressing U.S./French/Dutch farmers with agricultural subsidies. If you cared about the cotton industry, the right move would be exportation of technologies to reduce the start-up cost for textile industries. If you, like Hillary Clinton always says, care about intra-Africa trade, then why have rules of origin that undermine an area you're trying to help?

This, coupled with how divorced many African governments are from those whom they govern, make me deeply skeptical about any shiny development plans anyone may come forward with. I suppose there's the case that when you throw China-Africa trade into the mix the link wouldn't be so inescapable anymore, but that only sounds like an argument that even if the political economy of developed countries were to guide towards demand for more efficient government, we still might not get it in most places. I would love to be wrong about this.

*On this point, I should say I'm being purposely facetious. The U.S. was hanging with the apartheid government well into the late 1980s under Reagan and helped fuel the civil war in Angola that probably would have ended a decade earlier had it not been for U.S., under Bill Clinton, funding UNITA and shielding Savimbi from UN action. I'm probably leaving other stuff out, but bear with me. The purpose of this post is more about aid in Africa than U.S. screw-ups in Africa.

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