Rosa Whitaker, the former and first Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa, is the force that got the Bush administration off the ground toward Africa. She says that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush’s five-nation tour in Africa, which is scheduled to begin today, is “historic and significant” and can “solidify one of the strongest components” of his legacy — Africa.
The American couple’s first stop on the world’s second-largest continent will be Benin. Then they will travel to Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, and finally Liberia on Feb. 21st. Whether the trip helps Mr. Bush solidify his legacy depends more on the level of emphasis he will put on trade with Africa. Ms. Whitaker, who served in the trade representative’s office under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, says the trip is solid evidence that “America is abandoning traditional tokenism and ‘parachute diplomacy’ policies toward Africa.”
Some may say that “there’s still tokenism going on.” Mr. Bush will be touting a five-year, $30 billion aid package during the trip, which happens to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs. Throughout the relationship, America’s traditional focus toward Africa has been on “human assistance.” Mr. Bush said that the trip will show “the compassion of the people of the United Sates of America,” and, that he “wants to determine how the United States can continue supporting development of democracies, human rights, free trade and economic investment.”
Less than 2 percent of American trade occurs with African countries. For that reason, few African leaders will be greeting him with outstretched hands and grinning about America’s aid largess. Calls that the president makes for more trade with Africa will contribute more toward Mr. Bush’s presidential legacy than will aid offerings.
Africans have tilted politically and philosophically toward China and the East simply because of the more favorable trade alternatives. Africans such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni illustrate the scorn many have for America and for European countries’ trade practices. Mr. Museveni says: “Rich nations have to stop wasting Africa’s time with aid pledges. Instead, they must open their markets to African products.” Mr. Museveni also says, “Rich nations give aid with one hand while refusing to cut subsidies and tariffs with the other. They waste a lot of our time coming here talking about aid, if you talk about aid I go to sleep.”
President Bush won’t be meeting with Mr. Museveni. But if he wants to keep the Africans he does encounter awake, Mr. Bush needs to take note of Ms. Whitaker’s mantra: “Trade, not aid, is what’s needed between the U.S. and Africa.” The $30 billion purse Mr. Bush is carrying to Africa pales in Mr. Museveni’s eyes when he compares it to the $1 trillion trade and investment package China has with African countries. “Africa is a continent of promise,” Ms. Whitaker says, “and the United States can put programs in place so the children of Africa have opportunities to grow up healthy and realize their dreams.”
To help Africa advance, processes are needed to increase standards of living. There are 54 countries in Africa. The average African’s income is $600 per year. Full of minerals and agricultural bounty, Africa accounts for less than 2 percent of world trade. But, a 1 percent increase in trade for Africa would be the equivalent of five times the amount of aid it currently receives.
To bolster his legacy, Mr. Bush must call for more of the “trade instead of aid” that Ms. Whitaker advocates. Americans can continue to address Africa’s humanitarian needs, but its positive transformation, and America’s image there, will only come from increasing our trade activities in Africa. African leaders will be grateful for the presidential visit, but their disdain for United States/European Union/World Bank policies won’t abate until they can benefit from more equitable business partnerships with the world’s leading trading partners.
William Reed is president of the Black Press Foundation and co-founder of the Give Peace A Chance Coalition.