Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Africa between Spielberg and Bush
Exame - February 2008

It is a good time to be an African. Does that statement surprise you? It might 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. Admittedly, that is not a difficult test: sub-Saharan Africa is the one large region of the world that has suffered continued economic failure in recent decades. Things are getting better, but from a very poor background.

The reason why things are getting better is not just because Africa was graced in February by a visit by President George Bush. Yet his visit was a symptom of the change that is under way. So, in fact, was the resignation shortly afterwards by the great film director, Steven Spielberg, from his role as artistic adviser for the Beijing Olympic Games, in protest at China’s policy (or lack of one in Sudan.

            Mr Spielberg, however, is too exciting a figure. Let us start with George W. Bush. 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 exact reason that the White House emphasised in its media briefings before the visit. 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.


Good to be in demand

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 the global boom in prices for natural resources, especially oil, gas, iron ore and precious metals, from which many African countries have benefited hugely, just as Latin America has. 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. If would not have been diplomatic if President Bush had said during his African visit that he hoped 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 competition brings us back to Steven Spielberg. Probably, he always suspected that it was risky to take a job advising China about the Olympics’ opening ceremony and about a film to be made about the games. Last year, that risk was underlined when his fellow Hollywood star, Mia Farrow, wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal calling on Mr Spielberg to resign. If he did not, she said, he risked becoming “the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Olympics”, a painful comparison to the woman who made a film for Hitler of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

            At that time, Mr Spielberg shrugged off the criticism. But as pressure has built up and as the killings in Darfur have continued, he must have suspected that the criticism was going to increase. What that tells us, though, is not just that people are going to use the Beijing Olympics as a venue for attacks on China over human rights. What it tells us is that Africa matters: Africa has the world’s attention, and the world has realised that as long as China needs oil and other resources from Africa then embarrassments such as the resignation of Mr Spielberg will be very awkward to it. Hence, China immediately responded by despatching a special representative to Sudan to put pressure on the Sudanese government during a five-day stay.

            Africa matters, and there is competition now both to win the favour of African leaders and to look responsible in your Africa policies in the face of global public opinion. That is excellent news. It will not solve all the continent’s many problems overnight, but it is always good to have alternative friends, and a wide range of people wanting to be nice to you. This competition for Africa’s favour is more benign for Africans than is the battle for Latin Americans’ favour between Hugo Chavez and everyone else: at least it is directed at clear economic goals.

As competition is a fundamental American value, President Bush can hardly complain. But it does make matters more complicated for him and for his successors. 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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