Recent claims by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that pressure from the United States forced the Kenyan Government to undertake reforms and revelations about US funding for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the August referendum may give the impression that America’s foreign policy towards African countries is interventionist — if not paternalistic.
Indeed, Kenyans are rightly miffed by the gloating within the US administration because we know that it was ordinary wananchi — not the US Government — that struggled hardest to bring about these reforms. To take credit for this Kenyan aspiration is to insult all those who fought — and died — for it.
Rich donors to Africa have a tendency to take credit for many of the continent’s achievements. But donor interventions in Africa are not always altruistic, and are quite often detrimental. Sceptics have often noted that aid does not reduce poverty; it is often the cause of poverty and violence in many parts of world.
A recent article in Newsweek, for instance, has suggested that the pumping of massive amounts of aid money into Southern Sudan has had at least two visibly detrimental effects: educated Southern Sudanese are choosing to set up their own NGOs to tap into the aid money instead of taking up government jobs, and the high salaries paid to expatriate aid workers is distorting the local economy.
Worse, massive aid flows could also be a catalyst for renewed violence, as a government flush with aid money could be viewed as “a prize by competing Sudanese factions”, writes Newsweek’s Kevin Peraino. But recent statements by President Barack Obama suggest that US aid policies towards Africa may be changing dramatically.
At the United Nations gathering of world leaders in New York last month, Mr Obama admitted that US aid to poor countries had saved lives in the short term, but had done little to improve societies in the long term. He urged world leaders to view economic growth — not aid — as a poverty reduction strategy and to promote good governance to ensure sustainable growth.
“Consider the millions of people who have relied on food assistance for decades,” stated Mr Obama. “That’s not development, that’s dependence, and it’s a cycle we need to break… Let’s put to rest the old myth that development is mere charity that does not serve our interests. And let us reject the cynicism that says certain countries are condemned to perpetual poverty.”
Mr Obama reiterated that under his administration, economic growth will be the chief goal of US development policy. This policy, he noted, was critical for creating “conditions where assistance is no longer needed”.
It may be argued that US assistance to the Yes campaign was intended to bring about reforms that would stimulate economic growth, and is therefore justified under the new American policy. But I suspect that like his predecessor, George Bush, Obama views US aid as a strategic political goal, and is therefore not likely to push for drastic reduction in aid packages.
The emergence of new donors, such as China, has also added a new twist to the development debate and forced traditional Western donors to re-evaluate their approaches. China’s astounding economic growth in the past three decades has helped the country to lift millions of people out of poverty.
Its increasing presence in Africa is also of concern to many Western donors, who view China’s “no conditionalities” and “infrastructure-focused” approach to development assistance as unconventional. China’s approach to development assistance is, however, forcing a policy shift within international financial institutions.
Recently, World Bank president Robert Zoellick told students at Georgetown University that his organisation needed to rethink prevailing development paradigms and to accept that “others can find and create their own solutions”. He admitted that the bank needed to “democratise and demystify development economics” and to recognise that it did not have a monopoly on solutions.
For Southern Sudan, the greatest challenge lies in getting off the aid bandwagon, and investing oil and other domestic revenues in building the infrastructure, institutions, and human resources needed to bring about peace and prosperity in this war-torn region.