SAR, Vol 11, No 1, November 1995
THE U.S. FRONT:
NEWT-ERING THE SOLIDARITY MOVEMENT
BY JIM CASON
Jim Cason covers the U.S. beat for Southern Africa Report.
The conservative assault on U.S. foreign aid to Africa has provoked some difficult debates in this country as Africa groups and their supporters struggle to fight for aid while at the same time demanding radical changes in the composition, structure and goals of the U.S. Agency for International Development. A few activists are simply arguing good riddance, but given the pleas from Africa for continuing Western assistance most Africa groups joined the push for protecting aid to Africa.
The question in Washington this year is not whether U.S. aid to Africa will be cut, but by how much - in October Congress was still debating cuts of from 16% and 34%. "I have a hard time justifying expenditures in most of the African countries," said the Republican chairman of the subcommittee in charge of foreign aid in the Senate, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell. "I know they have enormous problems, but I have a hard time finding an American national interest."
Other conservative critics like Senator Jesse Helms argue that $10 billion in aid to Africa over the last thirty years has done little to solve Africa's problems, or prevent conflicts like Somalia, Rwanda or Liberia (he doesn't, however, take the next step and point out that the aid in some of these cases may have actually exacerbated the conflicts.)
In the context of these arguments, many Africa groups in the U.S. have been wary of criticizing foreign assistance for fear they will feed the movement for cuts. Within the government the rightward tilt has all but eliminated whatever room existed to press for a more development focused aid program. Gone is even the rhetoric of sustainable development. This year the focus of aid policy discussions has been on much more practical (and some would argue more true to actual policy). Justifications for aid based on short-term economic interests and the argument for some improvement of third world conditions now to pre-empt the need for more dramatic human intervention later.
"Aid to Africa is not welfare. It is an investment in other people for one's own self interest," argued U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Brian Atwood earlier this year. "Africa is today what the Latin American and Asian markets were a generation ago. It is the last great developing market. Latin America is the fasted growing market for US goods, a new middle class market of 350 million people . . . In 1993, sub- Saharan African imported $63 billion worth of merchandise goods from the rest of the world. America's share of this market is 10 percent, but it has been growing. African imports have risen by around 7 percent a year for the past decade. At this rate, the African market would amount to $480 billion by the year 2025. These figures represent millions of jobs. They reflect precisely what happens when the markets of developing countries grow."
This argument that aid to Africa opens up markets for U.S. investment and goods is also used to justify continuing contributions to the IMF and the World Bank. In fact U.S. officials note that the U.S. contributions to the World Bank and the IMF are small compared to the markets that those International Financial Institutions open up for U.S. products or even the purchases that these organizations make from the U.S.
Despite these arguments Republicans in Congress have cut the U.S. contribution to the World Bank's soft loan affiliate, the International Development Association, to $775 million, a figure nearly 40% smaller than the contribution last year.
So why not welcome the Republican budget cutters and elect the leader of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich honorary chair of the "50 Years is Enough" campaign against the World Bank? Well in part because of appeals from Africa. Nearly half of the money IDA lends out each year goes to Africa and when African Ambassadors in Washington got wind of the cuts they began a furious lobbying campaign, writing and visiting with members of Congress and pressing their allies in major Africa organizations to do the same. A group of African NGOs issued also issued a statement earlier this year declaring although the IDA needs to be reformed, they wanted to money to continue flowing.
In fact, most of the major Africa organizations in this country argue for more, but better aid to Africa and almost all of them have been pushing for more money to the World Bank's IDA. These groups have spent the last year mobilizing grassroots groups to lobby Congress not to cut aid. Several organizations, most prominently the Christian group Bread for the World and the organization Development GAP, have developed sharp critiques of these programs that are part of their campaigns, but a lot of the lobbying is simply Don't cut aid to Africa.
By now, of course, the failings of U.S. aid in Africa are well documented. But the public face of lobbying on this issue is often reduced to arguing that while aid isn't perfect, it is necessary and by the way can you please call your representative today. This is a reality I discovered first hand on several occasions this spring.
Speaking at a public forum on foreign aid this June in Pennsylvania all three of us on the podium urged the audience to write Washington and press for more aid to Africa. The evening began with a short video that raised some of the critical problems with foreign aid and then I made several specific criticisms of the way foreign aid is misused before launching into a plea for citizens to call Congress to press for more foreign aid that ten years ago would have gotten me thrown out of the Southern Africa Magazine collective. The other two people on the panel did not mention any criticisms of the program.
Once several students from Africa began raising questions about aid in relationship to debt, I reverted back to a more critical (and more comfortable) stance and a fight ensued between the critics and several recently returned peace corp volunteers. But the truth is that in short public interventions on this issue trying to persuade an audience to make one quick call to lobby Washington not to cut aid to Africa there isn't much room for detailed critical analysis.
It's not that people in the U.S. are unaware of the critique, it is just that in the face of the Republican assault on aid overall the debate about foreign aid has been reduced to either cut all development aid to the Third World (because of course, "strategic" aid to allies such as Israel and Egypt is not being cut) or make sure the aid advances specific short term political and economic interests.
And this lobbying paid off, to an extent. Analysts here had expected even deeper cuts in the Africa aid budget and it is even possible that despite threats from the Republicans, the main vehicle for U.S. funding in Africa, the Development Fund for Africa, will be maintained. But what exactly are we saving?
More often than not U.S. development aid to Africa is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is undeniably the fact that U.S. humanitarian assistance has kept tens of thousands from starving, supported electoral monitoring programs and helped provide shelter and medical aid to refugees. Yet as Joe Hanlon and others have well documented in these pages, the U.S. programs have also often led to more dependence and debt than development.
The easy answer, and perhaps the correct one, is simply to say good ridance and not worry about foreign aid. Western aid flows to Africa are declining anyway and for progressives perhaps it is best to begin looking at other types of relationships. Yet in truth foreign aid is still a major mechanism for advancing the U.S. neo- liberal agenda in Africa. The $600 million U.S. assistance program to South Africa, in fact, proves this point.
The U.S. assistance agenda is designed primarily to support the voices in South Africa advocating a free market agenda. Close to half of the money is devoted exclusively to promoting "market based models" and much of the rest is devoted indirectly to this purpose. And the U.S. Agency for International Development is not shy about proclaiming this purpose. In reviewing U.S. grantmaking in the period up to September 1994, the agency congratulated itself on keeping the ANC on the correct path: "A USAID funded international economics conference and supported research are credited to have led the GNU (Government of National Unity) leadership to endorse pragmatic economic policies and a fiscally conservative approach to the RDP, contrary to the prior expectations that an ANC-dominated government would opt for more statist solutions and fiscally unsustainable social programs."
The report probably overstates the influence of the U.S., but its bluntness nicely illustrates the dangers inherent in too uncritical an advocacy of foreign aid. And at the same time it demonstrates the importance of beginning to develop in the U.S. at least a capability to influence, or at least publicly critique the program.
Oxfam American, Development GAP, Bread for the World and others have begun to articulate alternatives aid policies that generally emphasize sustainable development, consultation and equity issues. The Africa Policy Information Center and The Africa Fund are both developing more detailed critiques of the U.S. aid program in South Africa. The question will be how to begin to bring some of this discussion out of Washington and into places where local constituencies can hear them.
Bread for the World has had some success in organizing local programs around the country that include critical comments from African leaders. Another hopeful sign is a city council resolution being offered by The Africa Fund. This resolution, which has been passed in Seattle, Washington and several other places, notes that aid to the poor is being cut in Africa and in the United States and calls for more assistance in both places. It's not a particularly sophisticated analysis but it is a beginning, and perhaps an important beginning to a new style of campaigning that looks at the consequences of development policies in Africa and in the United States.
- 30 -
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.