Africa needs more from Obama than promises

Africa needs more from Obama than promises

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WASHINGTON, August 8, 2014 — As the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit concludes with well over $30 billion in commitments from the U.S. government, World Bank and private companies, it is important for President Barack Obama to move beyond the Summit’s primary focus on big business expansion, resource extraction, counter-terrorism and aid-only agendas. Policies that promote peace and sustainability on the African continent will require a heavier lift by the White House.

If the West wants to provide just jobs and economic mobility for large percentages in Africa that remain unemployed, for example, business as usual won’t suffice. Amid the billion-dollar sums pledged at the Summit by Coca-Cola and others, worker rights — from collective bargaining and freedom of association to fair treatment at work with respect to wages and hours of work – must be respected.  If not, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a Summit favorite since it grants special duty-free U.S. access for 38 African nations, will fail in providing real economic opportunity for all.

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Going forward, the President should take a page out of a recently released peace index that shows a more productive path for the 54 countries on the continent. For the U.S. to help countries such as the Central African Republic, Egypt or South Sudan – the top three deteriorating countries on the 2014 Global Peace Index (GPI), an index that ranks 162 countries based on safety and security in society, domestic and international conflicts, and militarization – the answer won’t be found in drone strikes or air strikes, military-first approaches or aid dispatches. Nor will Zambia, Chad, Burundi and Liberia – four of the Top 10 countries most at risk of falling into instability and violence – be made more resilient.

The answers will, instead, be found in the attitudes, institutions and structures that sustain peaceful societies, all of which requires a more patient and persevering Western hand.  This is what we should be funding. The problem with many of the West’s policies on the African continent is that they tend to focus on the violence – e.g. weapons imports/exports, terrorist activity, homicide rates, violent demonstrations, conflicts fought, and violent crime (some of the top indicators on the GPI).

That’s where U.S. administrations tend to direct the majority of funds, ignoring the very indicators that promote peace.  In the still violent and unstable Libya, for example, U.S. taxpayers spent half a million dollars on each of the several hundred Tomahawk missiles it rained down on the country, leaving its institutions and infrastructures in ruins, ignored and unrestored.

The U.S. administration prioritized a military response in Libya but failed to prioritize that which would help her become less violent, whether it was a well-functioning government, equitable distribution of resources, human capital, lower corruption, sound business environments, the rights of others, free flow of information, or better relations with neighbors.

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The story is the same in other places on the African continent. Somalia got the same military treatment, leaving the thousands of unemployed youth to be recruited to al Shabaab for nothing more than $20 and a cell phone. Similarly, it is no surprise that some of the most unstable and insecure countries in Sub-Saharan Africa perform the poorest in the JustJobs Index’s ranking of countries with employment opportunity, income security, employment security, safety at work and healthy work conditions, equality of treatment and opportunity.

Whether in Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, any young man or woman is going to be much less inclined to pursue violence if they’ve got a good job, a quality education and legitimate socio-economic opportunities available to them.

Without these basic ingredients, these same young people have nothing to lose. If the West is going to wage any war on the African continent, this is the one it should wage.   It’ll be a lot cheaper in the long run. The global economic impact of violence last year was a whopping $9.8 trillion.  That’s 11.3 percent of global gross domestic product or two times the total GDP of Africa. And in Liberia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Somalia, containing violence is particularly costly, averaging approximately 20 percent of these countries’ GDP. These are much needed funds that could be spent on the aforementioned indicators that correlate strongly with more peaceful environments.

Post-summit, as the U.S. continues to engage African governments and nongovernmental organizations, let’s commit to the kind of economic and educational opportunities necessary to cool the conflicts plaguing the continent. We know what that means in terms of policy, and while it may be less immediate, less newsworthy, and less foreign contractor friendly, it is what is necessary. It is time to help Africa. It’s been hurting for too long.

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Michael Shank
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington DC. Michael is also Adjunct Faculty and a Board Member at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, Board Member at Communities Without Boundaries International, Senior Fellow at the French American Global Forum and the Just Jobs Network, and Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict. Prior to joining FCNL, Michael served for four years as a congressional staffer, working as US Congressman Michael Honda's Senior Policy Advisor and Communications Director. Michael's career over the past 20 years has involved UN, government and non-governmental organizations in the US, Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, as an adviser on diplomatic, economic, energy, and environmental security and policy initiatives. Michael's Ph.D. from George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution focused on Climate Conflict.