US Wants to Help Africa on the Rise

I am happy to see Secretary of State, John Kerry, saying in the Washington Post that America needs to help Africa with difficult decisions that lie ahead:

The best untold story of the last decade may be the story of Africa. Real income has increased more than 30 percent, reversing two decades of decline. Seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa, and GDP is expected to rise 6 percent per year in the next decade. HIV infections are down nearly 40 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and malaria deaths among children have declined 50 percent . Child mortality rates are falling, and life expectancy is increasing.

Reading between the lines Kerry seems to be watching America lose influence at a time when it should be pulled in by the Africans. He is advising Americans to start thinking of Africa in broader terms of partnership rather than just a place to impose pentagon-led “protective” objectives (e.g. stability for corporate margins, access to infrastructure projects for intel to chase and find our enemies, humanitarian assistance to verify our intel access to infrastructure is working).

A shift from pentagon objectives to state department ones, unless I’m being naive there still exists a significant difference, sounds like a good idea. Kerry does not back away from highlighting past American efforts as he moves towards imposing an American view of how to measure success:

The U.S. government has invested billions of dollars in health care, leading to real progress in combating AIDS and malaria. Our security forces work with their African counterparts to fight extremism. U.S. companies are investing in Africa through trade preferences under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. As a friend, the United States has a role to play in helping Africans build a better future.

Many of the choices are crystal clear. African leaders need to set aside sectarian and religious differences in favor of inclusiveness, acknowledge and advocate for the rights of women and minorities, and they must accept that sexual orientation is a private matter. They must also build on their economic progress by eliminating graft and opening markets to free trade.

I am not sure these two things are compatible if Africa is looking to find the best partner for decisions ahead. To put it another way, has America proven itself a help or a hindrance for the past decade with humanitarian issues? How does it advocate for rights of women and minorities yet send drones with a high civilian casualty rate? The fundamental question of how to reconcile offers of assistance with foreign strings and caveats seems underplayed.

My experience in Africa is the Chinese and Saudis push much more aggressive assistance programs with tangible results, everywhere from power plants and water supplies to schools and hospitals, without overt pressure on values alignment. Whereas a Saudi hospital might require women to cover their skin, which seems to America a horrible insult to women, Africans treat this a minor and perhaps even amusing imposition to disobey. Meanwhile an American hospital where anonymity is impossible and patients are said to be removed without warning and “disappeared”…creates an environment of resistance.

Allow me to relate a simple example of how the US might be able to both provide assistance while also find values alignment:

Global efforts to help malaria in Africa are less likely to fail because of the complicated nature of the disease and rather because of fraud. Kerry calls it graft. In Africa there is an unbelievable amount of graft tied directly to humanitarian efforts and I doubt there is anyone in the world who would say fraud is necessary or good.

I have run the stats given to me by leaders of humanitarian projects and I even have toured some developments on the ground. Conclusions to me seem rather obvious. Since 1989 my studies of humanitarian/ethical intervention in Africa, particularly the Horn, have looked into reasons for failure and one universal truth stands out. Graft shows up as a core issue blocking global efforts to help Africa yet I’m not sure anyone who isn’t looking for it already really notices. Here’s a typical story that tends to have no legs:

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has suspended funding for two malaria grants in Mali and terminated a third for tuberculosis (TB) after finding evidence that $4 million has been embezzled, the organisation said on Tuesday.

Grants to Mali and four other countries — Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Mauritania and Papua New Guinea — have been put under closer scrutiny with tighter restrictions on cash movements.


The suspensions in Mali concern a $14.8 million malaria grant to buy and distribute insecticide-treated nets for pregnant women and young children; a $3.3 million grant for anti-malaria drugs; and a $4.5 million TB grant targeted at treating prisoners, people in mining communities and patients with multidrug resistant strains of TB among others.

Please verify and see for yourself. Seek answers why assistance declines in areas most in need or is rejected despite demand increasing. Disease can not be eradicated if we back away when economic friction heats up. You may find, as I did, that projects stall when we can not detect supply chain threats, report vulnerabilities and enforce controls.

On the flip side of this issue, imposing a solution from top-down or outside only exacerbates the problem. Nobody wants an outsider to come in and accuse insiders of fraud if there exists any internal methods. Outside pressure can shut down the relationship entirely and block all access, as well as undermine internal footholds, which is why you rarely find diplomats and humanitarian project leaders touching on this issue.

I have proposed technical solutions to solve some of these supply chain issues blocking Africa’s “rise” although I doubt anyone is in a rush to implement them because politically the problem has been allowed to trundle along undefined. I am glad Kerry mentioned it as a footnote on America’s plan as it needs to be picked up as more of a headline. It would be great to see “America helps Senegal reduce fraud in fight to eradicate disease” for example. Until someone like Bill Gates says the problem we must overcome is weak systems that allow graft, we could just keep pumping assistance and yet see no gain or even see reversals. In fact Africa could distance itself from America if our aid goes misdirected while we attempt to impose our broader set of values on those who are not receiving any benefits.

American leaders now may want to help Africa rise and they have to find ways to operate in a market that feels more like a level playing field. We need to step in more as peers in a football match, rather than flood the field with referees, showing how we have solved similar problems while empowering local groups to solve them in ways that may be unfamiliar to us. Once we’re following a similar set of rules with a clear opponents like fraud and malaria, we need to find ways to pass the ball and score as a team. Could Kerry next be talking about delivering solutions integrated with African values rather than pushing distinctly American ones as preconditions?

IT is a perfect fit here because it can support peer-based coalitions of authorities to operate on infrastructure without outside controls. Imagine a network of nodes emerging in Africa the same way the Internet first evolved in America, but with modern technology that is energy efficient, mobile and wireless.

A system to detect, report and block graft on a locally derived scale instead of promoting a centralized top-down monitoring system seems unlikely to happen. Yet that could be exactly what will make America a real partner to Africa’s rise. It begs the question whether anyone has positioned to deliver NFC infrastructure for nets and vaccines while also agreeing to step back, giving shared authority and responsibility to track progress with loose federation. America could be quite a help, yet also faces quite a challenge. Will Kerry find a way for Africans to follow a path forged by America in ways he may not be able to control?

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