In Africa, Beyond Humanitarianism

By Princeton N. Lyman and Patricia Dorff
Special to's Think Tank Town
Thursday, August 9, 2007; 12:00 AM

Africa has risen steadily in importance to the United States in recent years. Traditionally, Africa has been thought of primarily as an object of humanitarian concern. That perception has been highlighted by popular figures, such as Bono, Bob Geldof, George Clooney and others, focusing public attention on Africa's poverty, conflicts and major diseases. Africa has further captured worldwide attention due to the conflict in Darfur. Because the United States has judged the Sudanese government's campaign in the region to be genocide, the conflict has taken on enormous moral importance.

But Africa has other reasons, beyond these critical humanitarian issues, to command America's attention. Africa is currently the scene of major competition for access to its natural resources. China, India, Malaysia, South Korea, Brazil and other countries with rapidly growing economies are turning to Africa for oil, minerals, timber and other resources. China in particular has led in this competition with significant amounts of aid along with financial backing for hundreds of Chinese companies to invest in Africa.

This new competition comes at a time when Africa's oil is becoming more important to the United States. Currently, 15 percent of U.S. oil imports come from Africa, as much as from the Middle East. Moreover, Africa is poised to double its output over the coming decade and potentially could provide as much as 25 percent of U.S. imports. African capacity to export natural gas is also growing rapidly, with American and British companies making billions of dollars in investments in liquefied natural gas plants along the Gulf of Guinea. Yet nearly all of Africa's oil reserves are in countries experiencing violence or instability, and in some cases serious violations of human rights. As the United States is discovering in the Middle East and Latin America, it is impossible to count on a continuing supply of oil from Africa without attention to the quality of governance, the degree that indigenous populations are benefiting from oil, and long-term stability.

In addition, Africa's importance is also growing in trade negotiations. With 40 of the World Trade Organization's 185 members, Africa is demanding significant reduction of U.S. and European agricultural subsidies and tariffs in return for agreement on a new round of worldwide trade improvements. Teaming up with India, Brazil and other third world countries, Africa has essentially brought the negotiations of the so-called Doha Round to a standstill pending movement on these issues.

Africa is also rising in importance in the war on terror. Al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and attacked Israeli facilities in Kenya in 2001. These acts revealed an extensive network of terrorist cells along the east African seaboard. The threat became apparent once again when an Islamic movement captured control of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, in 2006 and seemed headed toward confrontation with America's ally, Ethiopia, and to be taking steps hostile to American objectives, such as protecting terrorists known to be associated with the 1998 embassy bombings.

Finally, Africa is at the center of worldwide concerns over global health. Africa is the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic, with 28 million of the 40 million infected with HIV worldwide. Africa suffers the most deaths from malaria, one million per year. Led by the United States, annual worldwide expenditures on AIDS programs have risen from less than $1 billion in 2000 to $8 billion in 2006, and the United States has begun a major malaria initiative. But estimates are that as much as $22 billion will be needed annually in the next few years for AIDS alone. Whether these costs can be met, or met without subtracting from other forms of aid for education, agriculture, etc., is very uncertain. Meanwhile, investments in health and agricultural infrastructure for control of a potential avian flu pandemic are only on the drawing board.

At the center of all Africa's issues and challenges lies the persistence of poverty. Africa is by far the poorest continent and marginal in the global trading system. Poverty adds to the potential for conflict, the vulnerability to terrorist influence, the pressures of illegal migration and the spread of disease; it constitutes a drain on worldwide aid resources. Thus, the humanitarian problems return to center stage in contemplating U.S. policy. But they cannot be treated as objects of charity, nor be satisfied with emergency aid for relief and postconflict emergencies, which have comprised much of America's recent increases in assistance.

The growing importance of Africa demands a much more focused, long-term, and carefully directed program of economic assistance and trade reform. The Bush administration has begun to move in that direction with the Millennium Challenge Account, and Congress has contributed with the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which opens the U.S. market to African exports. But much more needs to be done. Only when Africa is recognized for the growing importance it has for America will these shortcomings be overcome.

Princeton N. Lyman, a former ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa, is the adjunct senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Patricia Dorff is director of publications at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is excerpted from a new CFR Book, Beyond Humanitarianism: What We Need to Know About Africa and Why It Matters.

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