Gone are the days when Melania Trump traveled to Africa in tropical colonial clothes, showing the complete lack of interest of the United States, led by her husband, in the continent. Since then, official American policy has changed significantly.
Africa is, once again, a continent disputed by the great powers. This dispute results from the new race for raw materials and markets, the search for influence in the world chess, namely African votes in the United Nations, and also the presentation of a social laboratory to show the world which recipe for prosperity works best. : the developmental authoritarian Asian or the liberal western.
All of this, in the context of the new competitive dispute with China, led the United States to once again focus its attention on Africa and place it at the forefront of its foreign policy priorities.
In recent months, American initiatives related to Africa and the trips of high dignitaries have been constant. Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, First Lady Jill Biden, to mention just the most important recent trips (Harris, March 2023; Yellen, January 2023; Biden , February 2023). Only Joe Biden’s tour is missing to culminate this high-level political-diplomatic offensive.
However, the impression that remains from these trips is that, apart from beautiful speeches, splendid photographic opportunities and some circumstantial financial support, they add nothing to the resolution of African problems and, above all, they do not diminish the supposed Chinese influence, nor do they oppose it.
The problem is in the model adopted by the Americans. It is a model that is not very interactive and does not address African structural problems. Essentially, US leaders distribute smiles and marketing, warn of the Chinese danger, announce small foreign aid and refer the big questions to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), talking with greater or lesser intensity about good governance. Janet Yellen’s visit to Zambia was emblematic of this failure. When Hichilema was elected, he became a sort of poster boy for American good intentions.
However, what is certain is that Zambia has a serious foreign debt problem and has defaulted, finding itself in an endless labyrinth between China and the IMF, which ends up greatly harming the population. It is not enough to say that China is to blame and order the IMF to move forward, which in turn makes everything depend on agreements with China, which is waiting for the country to agree with the other creditors, getting into a tailspin – prolonged pong.
This kind of attitude will only lead to the US being criticized for talking but doing nothing.
The truth is that China’s entry into Africa from the 2000s onwards was not due to any historical relationship, practically irrelevant, but to a void, a void left by the West. Now, it is this void that persists, despite the new rhetoric and the countless initiatives, trips and forums held in the American capital or in Europe.
Africa does not need economists with their Harvard and MIT textbooks, which apply recipes from developed market economies unable to serve African populations and leading to their impoverishment. The manual to be applied must be the previous one, that of the very creation and structuring of economies and markets. Bringing consultants, economists, managers and people of intentions ashore doesn’t help – it only complicates things.
Obviously, to be successful, the North American perspective has to be different, resembling what was done in Europe after the Second World War (1939-1945). In other words, launching their money helicopters over Africa, while creating domestic markets on the continent.
Very simply put, the US will only compete with the Chinese in Africa if it replaces them, if it spends money. Arriving in Africa empty-handed or with promises of future private investment, which may or may not materialize, is no use.
Strictly speaking, if they really want to help Africa, the Americans should start by swapping the Chinese debt, that is, lending financial funds to African governments at lower interest rates and higher maturities, so that governments pay China. In this way it would certainly be possible to introduce competition into the African debt market and remove the monopoly from China.
In the same vein is the financial support for structural projects on the continent, from the massification of electricity and basic sanitation to digitization.
It is clear that the American people may disagree with this option and politicians may not want to embrace it, but the only realistic path is this and not another — this is how the US has gained influence in the past.
Furthermore, in addition to real capital, Africa needs specialists: not economists or consultants, which are in abundance, but professionals in essential areas, such as doctors, nurses, engineers, IT professionals, teachers, etc.
It is necessary to recover the initial spirit of the Peace Corps, idealized by President Kennedy, and massively send to Africa “men and women from the United States qualified for service abroad and available to serve, if necessary under difficult conditions, to help people in areas that help countries meet their needs” (Peace Corps Goals).
Finally, good governance should not focus on the constitutional apparatus, but on something simpler and more fundamental: public administration.
What is essential is to prepare public administrations in African countries to function efficiently and effectively, even if governments do not meet their objectives. Shifting the focus of good governance from the executive to the administration is a structuring element of any functioning society, overcoming disagreements and fears of political interference.
It is evident that only an investment of this type – in capital, in human resources and in qualified training – can allow the United States to leave a real mark of progress in Africa, following a counterpoint strategy to that of China. Otherwise, good intentions will be just that: good intentions without results.