President Bill Clinton's historic visit to six sub-Saharan countries to highlight a new U.S. partnership with Africa comes at a time when Washington is experiencing something of an "Africa craze." The level of attention and activity focused on Africa policy, African problems and Africa programs is as great as it ever has been. There is no shortage of committees, conferences, seminars, panels, task forces and study groups devoted to talking about the greater good and development of Africa. The question is whether all this new and popular interest will give birth to deeds.
So far, the partnership has been characterized, on the one hand, by clumsy U.S. overtures to give Africa what Washington thinks it needs and, on the other, unreal African expectations of what they should receive. For all the flowery, feel-good discourse on Africa's importance to the United States, U.S. engagement with the continent remains fixed on a few big-money industries like petroleum and mining.
Part of the problem is that a changing African political landscape has not been accompanied by a changing U.S. policy toward Africa. Actual foreign assistance to sub-Saharan Africa is lower now than at any time since the end of the Cold War--$700 million distributed among 48 countries. Much of this aid provides support for nascent democracies and fledgling civic institutions. The United States also has contributed to the Organization of African Unity's conflict-resolution program and to regional peacekeeping efforts in West Africa, but most of the financial burden is borne by Africans themselves, notably Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, Ghana.
During his trip, the president has pledged aid for schools in Uganda, housing efforts in South Africa and other development, education and humanitarian projects in Africa. But compared with the $925 million that Clinton wants to give to the New Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union and the nearly $600 million targeted for Indonesia, despite its unwillingness to comply with the bailout terms of the International Monetary Fund, Africa remains at the bottom of the foreign-aid list.
One reason why few people are critical of this disparity is that the administration has successfully shifted the debate from aid to trade. The fact remains, however, that the steady decline in foreign assistance to Africa has occurred on Clinton's watch, and that one of history's worst cases of genocide unfolded in Rwanda while the administration openly stood and debated on the sidelines whether it was in the U.S. interest to intervene.
U.S. Africa policy has been more apt to score symbolic successes. Top-ranking administration officials, among them Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine K. Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea, have made highly publicized trips to sub-Saharan Africa. These excursions have established a measure of goodwill. But Africans are both curious and anxious about what appears to be an irresolute foray by the United States into Africa. They wonder why it has taken so long, yet they remain expectant, optimistic and welcoming.
Most notably, there are high expectations surrounding the African Growth and Opportunity Act, legislation that promotes private U.S. trade with and investment in Africa and allows quota and duty-free imports from 48 African countries. While the legislation is not a panacea for every African problem, it addresses one of the continent's paramount problems: economic development. The president is a strong supporter of the bill and if it passes Congress, he will sign the legislation.
The time is propitious. Democratic reform, multiparty elections and real economic growth are occurring throughout the continent. Many African economies are privatizing; international investment is being courted.
Against this hopeful backdrop, however, long-standing problems continue to impede African progress. Internecine conflicts rooted in tribal power struggles continue. Military regimes defy Western pressures and timetables to democratize. Single-party, big-man governments are far from extinct in Africa.
In the past, U.S. policy-makers have failed to understand or appreciate the African perspective. African societies are every bit as complex and multifaceted as U.S. society because of linguistic, tribal, ethnic, regional, religious and colonial influences. It will take a long and sustained effort to forge a meaningful and enduring U.S.-Africa partnership.
Yet, the president's visit is an important step toward creating one. It fulfills a promise Clinton made several years ago, and it comes at a time when Africa is a de rigeur destination for a world leader. But a visit, no matter how grand or successful, can only go so far. Beyond its symbolic significance, the president's visit should result in several bilateral agreements on trade and regional cooperation and a conclusive statement on African debt relief. It should open the floodgates of U.S. investment and exchange and create a spirit of outreach. If it fails to do so, then the historic trip is likely to be viewed cynically as Clinton's respite from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his prying grand-jury investigations. For the president and for Africa, that would be an unfortunate conclusion to an otherwise successful trip.