|Africa's Valuable Assets - A Reader in Natural Resource Management (WRI, 1998, 464 pages)|
|1. Africa's Wealth, Woes, Worth|
Public development assistance programs that help poor people and nations strengthen the U.S. economy and support its broader foreign policy goals. As such, bilateral and multilateral public assistance should increasingly be viewed as public investment. Indeed, foreign assistance often encourages private investors by helping establish and strengthen truly democratic institutions, and addressing the root causes of the corruption and red tape that have kept businesses away from Africa for so long. It also often supports infrastructure development, improves governance, and helps create economic stability. It is a small investment that goes far in boosting U.S. trade.56
Despite this, recent years have seen growing isolationism and shrinking budgets that have cut development assistance programs by more than a third. Meanwhile, the legislation and institutions behind these programs have become buried under three decades of often-contradictory statutes and regulations. Disengagement by the U.S. government would send a signal to U.S. companies that their investments are in greater jeopardy. The danger of losing a market with potential such as Africa's should be carefully considered before writing the continent off as too questionable a risk.
Few will question the withdrawal of U.S. bilateral support to corrupt politicians or to dictators and their governments who terrorize their populations; yet, for at least two compelling reasons, giving aid to established democracies and helping to launch new democracies cannot be the only rationales for support.
First, setting up public and private institutions flexible enough to adapt as agendas and priorities shift takes time, and multiparty elections alone cannot assure pluralism such that all citizens will be actively engaged in governance. If anything, recent experiences in Africa have already shown that ruling parties can manipulate multiparty national elections, even under international scrutiny. Further, the real challenge for African democratization is to ensure participation and accountability not only at the national level but, perhaps more important, at the local level. Many African countries, such as Ghana, Uganda, and others in southern Africa, have achieved remarkable levels of decentralization by efforts such as granting greater autonomy to and empowering local governments and promoting local participation in subnational elections, devolving critical power to citizens and communities, and providing freedoms of association, information, and expression.
Second, withdrawing all foreign assistance has had limited success in bringing down dictators and their cronies. Under chaotic conditions and away from international scrutiny and action, the powerful elite profit from the plunder of national resources and the impoverishment of the masses. For example, an experienced businessman in Zaire observed that the late Mobutu Sese Seke, Zaire's fabled dictator until May 1997 when he was overthrown, actually encouraged the chaos there. Hyperinflation made it easy for foreigners to make money, and they in turn lined Mobutu's and his allies' pockets. In the past, the army had been paid off by Mobutu and the people had not been able to topple him partly because there are no roads, and the absence of communication makes it very difficult to organize an effective opposition. In the total corruption that reigned, everyone fended for themselves and people's allegiance could be bought one by one.57
Although halting support to Africa may not be the best way to defang its ruling "Big Men," even sharply curtailing foreign assistance will hurt Africa's "little men and women," the millions of marginalized smallholder farmers and herders in often isolated rural regions who are the mainstays of African economies and its labor force, and who swell the ranks of the poor and the hapless refugees. Although they have weathered years of bad economic policies with resilience, Africa's rural majority and their self-help organizations are politically disenfranchised as well as financially and, in some cases, technically hamstrung. Most of the rural population has long lacked a voice in public policy-making. In some countries, policy research, lobbying, and advocacy are associated by government with political activism, and are grounds for imprisonment or even death. Many African experts agree that irresponsible leadership, nondemocratic governments, civil unrest, and instability rank among Africa's most pressing problems (since the late 1950s, 25 African countries have undergone at least one violent change of government through war, coup, or countercoup).58
Against this backdrop, it is crucial to support social structures and civic organizations (along with other key components of pluralism, such as an independent legislature and judiciary) that will challenge dictators and ensure that governments respond to citizens' needs. Strengthening such institutions, whether women's groups, farmers' collectives, artisans' cooperatives, or environmental organizations, will both enhance government accountability and give citizens the tools they need to express beliefs and build communities.59
Groups concerned with land and natural resource management are particularly important, especially those trying to influence policy-makers and impact government policy and legislation. National and household economies that depend on natural resources stand to lose a lot when the resource base becomes so degraded that it cannot produce. Conflicts over land and other resources already clog many local courts throughout Africa, and the underlying problem is often linked to civil unrest and even wars that may force U.S. action, as in Somalia and Rwanda.
According to Wangari Maathai, the outspoken force behind Kenya's Green Belt Movement, "if governments lack political will to apply laws, regulations, and agreements to which they have subscribed, only an informed and involved community can stand up for the environment and demand development that is sustainable and that is friendly to the environment."60 In much of the current dialogue on development assistance to Africa, this line of reasoning has been termed "strengthening civil society." Although civil society is defined variously by political scientists, all agree that in anarchy there is no strong and influential civil society.61
While NGOs can help strengthen civil society by working directly with the segments of the population that African societies literally cannot live without - smallholder farmers (men and women), fishers, herders, and so on - responsible governance must also be a major aim of foreign assistance. Wangari Maathai and many other NGO leaders concerned with the environment and natural resource management have been forced to become more political precisely because their community development work cannot be effective without sound government and pluralism.