Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Let the Backtracking Begin, Part Trois

So the White House has a spiffy new website to go along with the change in administration, but you'd have to search long and hard to find anything on it about global poverty, aids, or Africa. In fact, the totality of what they say on the subject comes under one bullet point in a list of other miscellaneous foreign policy objectives:
Fight Global Poverty: Obama and Biden will embrace the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty and hunger around the world in half by 2015, and they will double our foreign assistance to achieve that goal. [Note that they've already backtracked on their campaign promise to do so by the end of Obama's first term.] This will help the world's weakest states build healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth.
I happened to be in a cab yesterday with a driver from Sierra Leone, who was watching the inauguration on a tiny black and white TV he had plugged into his cigarette lighter outlet. He was enjoying himself enormously, but when I asked him what he thought Africans expected from Obama, he said they didn't expect much. "America needs to get its own house in order. There are too many countries in the world for him to care about all of them."

I think he's probably right. Obama is going to be so busy dealing with the fundamental problems of the United States, as well as with the foreign policy disasters in the Middle East left over from the last administration, that the likelihood that he will significantly raise the profile of Africa, aid, or humanitarian programs abroad is probably very low. In fact, David Moss, over at the Center for Global Development, suggests that the Obama administration change very little about Bush's Africa policies.

I agree with Moss that Bush has been unexpectedly generous, especially given the rhetoric from his 2000 campaign, which seemed to assign Africa the lowest rung on the foreign policy totem pole. But in an ideal world, there is a lot more that Obama could do to help Africa beyond what Bush has done. And I suspect Obama could do it right. Although he wasn't raised in Africa and only saw his Kenyan father a couple of times, I have a feeling he is too thoughtful--and too shrewd about the continent--to give himself over to the narcissistic impulse to "save Africa." (As readers of this blog may have gathered by now, I believe that overcoming that temptation is the beginning of wisdom about how we in the West can actually help.) Whether the people Obama hires for the top Africa and USAID positions have that sense of proportion--or whether they will be retreads from the disastrous Clinton years--remains to be seen. (Disastrous for Africa, that is, characterized as they were by wavelets of callow crusading meant to make up with enthusiasm for what they were denied in resources.)

I will be writing more about what we can learn about Clinton and Bush's contrasting African legacies, and what a "maximalist" Africa policy might be, in the days ahead. In the meantime, it is probably wise to follow the cabbie's advice and not expect too much.

Update: There is also this mention: "To make diplomacy a priority, Obama and Biden will stop shuttering consulates and start opening them in difficult corners of the world -- particularly in Africa." I don't think that fundamentally changes the point of my argument.

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