"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


obama goes to ghana

If you're an Africa-watcher, you're already well aware that this weekend marks Barack Obama's first trip south of the Sahara in his official capacity as President. Obama makes a brief stop in Ghana this weekend. We've already discussed why he's going to Ghana rather than Kenya or another African powerhouse: Ghana is fairly well-governed, peaceful, and pretty much does what the U.S. tells it to do.

There are lots of intersting places to get African perspectives on Obama's visit to Ghana. The BBC's excellent Africa Have Your Say program has been collecting responses from people all over the continent all week; you can read and listen to some of those here. The One Campaign also produced a slick video featuring Ghanaians who are particularly enthusiastic about the president's trip. Likewise, policy organizations are full of suggestions for what Obama should say (and do) in Africa. Writing at Foreign Policy in Focus, Ghanaian economist Charles Abugre suggests that the president should break with his predecessors' paternalistic attitude towards the continent, while Human Rights Watch wants the president to push for (wait for it) better respect for human rights continent-wide.

What will Obama say in his speech (scheduled for 6am Saturday east coast time for you early weekend risers and at a more reasonable hour for those of you in Africa and Europe)? We got a small hint of what might be to come in a speech Obama gave to several African leaders earlier this week. Not surprisingly for an American president, Obama spoke about governance issues and the need for stronger leadership across the continent. He also denounced those who blame the West for all of Africa's problems:
"I think part of what's hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance, that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism – I'm not a big – I'm not a believer in excuses."
This part of the speech was clearly aimed at Zimbabwe, which may rival Iran for being the place in the world in which the British and Americans are blamed for every problem. Any rational observer knows that the reason Zimbabwe's economy is in shambles can be summed up in two words: Robert Mugabe. There's no question that better leadership and sensible policies would help many African states and excuses are no substitute for good governance.

But Obama needs to walk a fine line in his Saturday speech, because a dispassionate analysis makes it virtually indisputable to claim that Western policies don't hurt African economies. His speech earlier this week came at the summit of the G-8, an organization whose trade policies have done far more to hurt African economies than to help them. Through the G-8, the WTO, and the Bretton Woods institutions, the United States and other Western countries engage in horribly unfair trade practices against most African states. My government's subsidies to American farmers makes it virtually impossible for African farmers to compete in American markets; the insistence by World Bank that African states not subsidize domestic industry is a double standard of the worst kind.

What's more, African states often have no say in the economic policies they are forced to adapt - and they are almost never treated as equal, credible participants in international trade negotiations. There are countless examples of African states being left out of closed-door WTO discussions that directly affect their ability to prosper. Economic neo-colonialism is alive and well.

Does it matter? In short, yes. As Joseph Stiglitz points out in a brilliant Vanity Fair piece, elites in developing countries are well aware of the double standards to which they are subjected, and watching the U.S. refuse to use the same sorts of measures it forces on other countries during their economic crises on itself may push some of those elites towards other economic systems that will lead to human suffering. Obama would do a much greater service to the continent's people by acknowledging how deeply unfair my country's trade practices are and by committing to moving toward negotiations that treat African states not as children to be disciplined, but as mature countries with educated elites who know how to run an economy.

Obama claimed in his speech earlier this week that he probably knows as much about Africa than any previous president. That's true, but it's also not saying much. American policy makers have a long tradition of almost willful ignorance about what really happens on the continent and how the U.S. should - or should not - be involved there. I am not hopeful about this administration's policies towards the continent; sending weapons to Somalia and suggesting that noticing the effects of neo-colonial and paternalistic policies amounts to excuse-making suggests that Obama is headed in the same direction as his predecessors. Here's hoping he proves me wrong on Saturday.

(Photo: Obama kanga from Tanzania, available for purchase from Simply Tanzanian. If anyone has a picture or link of Ghanaian fabric depicting Obama, I'd love to know about it!)


Blogger Fake Expatriate said...

"I'd say I'm probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who's occupied my office. "

from the White House transcript of the AllAfrica interview

(as, not more)

Friday, July 10, 2009 10:11:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Corrected, thanks for noting it.

Friday, July 10, 2009 10:24:00 AM


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