US Africa Policy, A Response

This is a guest post by friend of the blog Matthew Kustenbauder responding to a previous post.

On the question of human rights guiding America’s foreign policy in Africa, I agree with you; it shouldn’t be the first priority. The US needs a more pragmatic development diplomacy strategy, which would help African countries develop just as it would help American businesses thrive.

But I disagree with your characterization of Hillary’s position in this respect. Here’s Secretary Clinton’s own words:
“Last year I laid out America’s economic statecraft agenda in a series of speeches in Washington, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and New York. Since then, we’ve accelerated the process of updating our foreign policy priorities to take economics more into account. And that includes emphasizing the Asia Pacific region and elevating economics in relations with other regions, like in Latin America, for example, the destination for 40 percent of U.S. exports. We have ratified free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. We are welcoming more of our neighbours, including Canada and Mexico, into the Trans-Pacific Partnership process. And we think it’s imperative that we continue to build an economic relationship that covers the entire hemisphere for the future.” 
“Africa is home to seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies. People are often surprised when I say that, but it’s true. And we are approaching Africa as a continent of opportunity and a place for growth, not just a site of endless conflict and crisis. All over the world, we are turning to economic solutions for strategic challenges; for example, using new financial tools to squeeze Iran’s nuclear program. And we’re stepping up commercial diplomacy, what I like to call jobs diplomacy, to boost U.S. exports, open new markets, lower the playing field – level the playing field for our businesses. And we’re building the diplomatic capacity to execute this agenda so that our diplomats are out there every single day promoting our economic agenda.” 

One of the problems, however, is that the pragmatic approach articulated by the Secretary doesn’t trickle down through the bureaucracy. This is especially true, ironically, of the State Department’s primary development diplomacy arm, USAID, which has a deeply entrenched culture of being anti-business. It’s a huge problem, and part of the reason why American foreign policy in Africa has been so slow to adjust to new economic realities.

Security drives US Africa Policy

Security drives US Africa Policy

Academics schooled in all the latest development orthodoxies but lacking the most basic understanding of economic or business history have flocked to USAID, so that the suggestion that American economic interests should guide development policy – making it a win-win for Africa and America – is anathema. It’s also why the Chinese are running all over the US in Africa.

As a prominent economic historian recently remarked in the Telegraph, “While we [Western governments] indulge our Victorian urge to give alms to the Africans, Beijing is pumping black gold.” And this is just it. As long as the US approaches Africa as a beggar needing to be saved and not as a business partner worthy of attention, both sides will continue to lose out.

In this respect, what Africa does not need is another “old Africa hand” steeped in conventional development ideas and old dogmas about what’s wrong with Africa and why the US must atone for the West’s sins. For this reason alone, John Kerry – not Susan Rice – probably stands a better chance, as the next Secretary of State, at putting American foreign policy toward Africa on a more solid footing.

- Matthew Kustenbauder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.

More on the DRC

CFR has a nice interview with Jason Stearns, DRC expert and author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Jason in part notes that:

This crisis has brought about a shift in international donor policy for the region, in particular criticism and financial sanctions against Rwanda, which is something that’s new. However, using aid as leverage only makes sense in the context of a larger political process. Bashing Rwanda just for the sake of bashing Rwanda is not a solution. There needs to be a comprehensive political process into which that kind of pressure can be funneled and channeled. But there is no such process at the moment. What you have are talks mediated by a regional body—the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR)—that has the irony of being presided over by Uganda, which is itself playing a role in the conflict by supporting the M23. These talks have been largely limited to an evaluation of the March 23, 2009 peace deal, and the potential formation of a regional military force to deal with the FDLR and M23. But the causes of the crisis run much deeper and involve the failure of local governance, the weakness of the Congolese army, and the persistent meddling of neighboring countries in Congolese affairs.

This is precisely what informs my contention that there is too much focus on the international dimension of the conflict at the expense of the kinds of reforms that Congo needs in order to improve state capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country.

You can’t do business, implement a human rights regime, or even pretend to have democratic governance in a stateless environment (Unless, of course, you live in a state of nature in which everyone has capacity to defend themselves against aggression by others).

Some, including very serious and influential people, think that the solution to Congo’s weakness is to plea with its neighbors not to prey on it. I disagree. I believe that the best solution ought to be the strengthening of Congo so it can deter its neighbors. The international community just wasted a good opportunity to force a cornered Kabila to agree on a peace deal that is self-enforcing, i.e., that reflects the power balance in eastern Congo.

As things stand the continuation of the power vacuum in the Kivus will continue to attract rebels, foreign-sponsored or not.

More on this here.

Also here is a  glimpse of some of the actions by Kabila and his Kinshasa cabal which make it extremely unlikely that the situation in Congo will improve under his rule.

Governing on the cheap in Africa

What is striking and surprising here is just how easy it can be to take over some African states, or large parts of them.  The post-independence historical record provides numerous examples where dozens or a few hundred armed men have done it.  This is generally just assumed to be the way things are in Africa, but when you think about it it is actually really puzzling.  Being the president in African countries (and many others besides) can be an incredibly lucrative deal.  Why don’t these rulers, in their own self-interest, take some of that money and use it to build crack units, presidential guards, or strong and loyal army divisions that would protect their hold on power against two dozen putchists, or a hundred or a couple thousand rebels armed with rifles and maybe some mortars?

I don’t think we have really good explanations for this in the relevant Pol Sci literatures.  Maybe the most promising hypothesis is that African presidents are so afraid of coups and attacks from inside their regime that they don’t want to support the construction of any organization that would be competent at using force.  Keeping the military weak  may lower their coup risk somewhat, but effectively trades coup risk off against higher risks of rural rebellion, insurgency, and foreign depredations such as we are seeing in Eastern Congo.

That is Jim Fearon writing over at Monkey Cage. More on this here.

Jim’s concern extends beyond security matters. Much of Africa remains under-governed in other regards as well – tax collection, garbage collection, provision of public goods like water and sanitation, roads, etc etc.

One key driver of this phenomenon, I believe, is the manner in which sectional elites (and those that they purportedly represent) are incorporated into the national system.

You see, many African national governments tend to have a president surrounded by a coalition of ethnic/sectional elites representing specific geographic regions or communities. This sort of incorporation of elites and the regions/social groups that they represent allows African central governments to govern on the cheap since as long as ethnic chief from region X can bring his people and sort of make them feel represented in the centre then the government has no reason to establish a strong presence in the chief’s homeland region (unless that region is economically viable).

A keen observer may ask why co-ethnics of these “ethnic chiefs” never demand for more from their supposed representatives at the centre.

The answer lies in the nature of citizenship in most of Africa. In many countries citizenship (and the associated claims on the state) tends to be mediated through one’s ethnic group. Talk of “our people” is common across much of the region. Even educated people have internalized the fact that you can only get jobs if a co-ethnic is in a high position in government. Everyone therefore invests in having a powerful ethnic representative at the centre that can effectively bargain with whoever is president (or in the core of the governing coalition) to get enough jobs for the boys and girls from back home.

But having such a person obviates the need for the central government to establish its presence at the local level since it is much cheaper to give the ethnic chief his own fiefdom in the name of a cabinet ministry. Barriers to entry allow for very long tenures for these ethnic chiefs thus breeding incompetence of the worst possible kind – like the case of Kenyan police officers accepting bribes from al-Shabab operatives to allow for passage of explosives destined for Nairobi.

From the president’s/government’s perspective, all you have to do to prevent an all out rebellion is be on good terms with enough of these ethnic chiefs or make it beneficial for them to live under your rule.

Seen this way, under-government is not just for the sake of coup-proofing but also an unintended consequence of the manner in which the masses and their representative elites are incorporated into the national government/state.

The best book out there that I have read on this subject is Catherine Boone’s Political Topographies of the African State. Boone is best read with Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa, although Herbst’s conclusions are too deterministic for my liking.