Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Competition for Africa´s heart
Corriere della Sera - February 17th 2008

It is a good time to be an African. It may not seem all that good, if you look at the violence in Kenya, or the continued slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan, or the tragic collapse of living standards in Zimbabwe, but actually this is the best time to be African that there has been within living memory. The reason is not just because Africa is being graced by a visit by President George Bush. Yet his visit is a symptom of how things are getting better.

            American presidents have developed a habit of making African tours at the end of their terms of office. By then, they cannot achieve much at home as their influence has faded and everyone’s eyes are on the campaign to succeed them. The outgoing president wants to look statesmanlike and compassionate. Bill Clinton also discovered Africa during his second term, having tried to ignore it during his first term after his military humiliation in Somalia and his moral humiliation in Rwanda. With George Bush, however, things are a bit different, and more positive.

            They are more positive, in part, for the reason that the White House has been emphasising in its media briefings. The Bush administration has been genuinely compassionate in its African policies, starting in President Bush’s first term. His special fund to help ease the problem of HIV/AIDS has spent $15 billion there since 2003, has enabled perhaps a million Africans to receive powerful AIDS drugs and has meant that America remains popular in Africa while it is unpopular almost everywhere else. Private American philanthropy has also kept the country popular in Africa, especially the huge effort being made to reduce deaths from malaria and tuberculosis, as well as AIDS, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

            Like all overseas aid, such flows of American money also bring controversy. The focus on AIDS, say some critics, draws money and skills away from more basic health needs, including the provision of clean water and sanitation. Some of the money is undoubtedly stolen and some just enables unscrupulous African governments to spend less of their own money on health and more on palaces and weapons. Nevertheless, on balance George Bush’s programme has been beneficial, especially for America’s battered reputation.

            There are, however, two other reasons why life is improving for Africans which are less comfortable for President Bush. The economies of sub-Saharan Africa have been growing by 5-6% a year for the past four years. That happy growth, though, has come because of a global boom in prices for natural resources, especially oil, gas, iron ore and precious metals. That boom has occurred in part thanks to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 but mainly thanks to fast-growing demand in China, India and other emerging markets.    

            As long as demand for natural resources stays high and the supply of them is limited, this price boom will continue. It mainly enriches the elites of those African countries fortunate enough to produce resources, but some of it contributes to wider prosperity in those countries where democracy forces it to. It also, however, has become a cause of inflation in America and the European Union, which is why interest rates have recently been high in those countries. President Bush can hardly say during his African visit that he hopes commodity prices will soon collapse. But it would help the Western economies if they did.

            What this boom means above all, however, is that there is now competition to be friends with African countries, to invest there and to provide aid—at least in those countries that have natural resources. China has been the most prominent competitor, but India is starting to invest in Africa too as its own manufacturing industry begins to expand and to demand imported materials.

            That is excellent news for Africa. It is always good to have alternative friends, and a wide range of people wanting to be nice to you. As competition is a fundamental American value, President Bush can hardly complain. But it does make matters more complicated. When there is competition, African leaders become less likely to listen to your lectures about how to run their economies. They become less grateful for your aid money. They may even become less interested in you when you pay them a visit. For all those reasons, the next American president is likely to be a lot quicker to pay another visit to Africa than either Bill Clinton or George Bush—and not only if his name is Barack Obama.


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