Making Friends for Africa

"There has been no vocal, effective, reliable and consistent constituency for Africa in this country," complained Leonard H. Robinson Jr., a deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "Africa needs all the friends it can get in America."

In this context, the name Africa designates some 48 sub-Saharan countries that have a combined population of nearly 500 million. In many important ways, these countries differ widely from one another, but they also have certain features in common.


All these African nations except Ethiopia and Liberia were formerly European colonies, and Liberia was once equivalently a U.S. colony. Since 1958 these countries have become independent but have had troubled histories. They began their new lives as constitutional democracies but quickly lapsed into authoritarian regimes, in which elections were often rigged and human rights disregarded. Under these corrupt governments, whether run by the military or civilians, the general populations frequently suffered from social mismanagement and impoverished economies even in countries rich in natural resources. Many of these nations are also struggling with epidemics of AIDS and other diseases, and 11 of them are currently torn by civil wars.

Both President Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright have acknowledged that for decades U.S. foreign policy contributed to the decline of those new African nations. Washington collaborated with corrupt regimes because they were anti-Communist. Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now Congo) was only the most spectacular of these cases.

Even when intentions were good, strategies were mistaken. The United States uncritically promoted a free-market philosophy without modifying it for African use. It also pushed for establishment of democratic structures without allowing the African countries enough time and experience to develop a culture of democracy within which democratic institutions guaranteeing civil rights, honest electoral procedures and the realistic prospect of alternating parties controlling the government could be established.

These bitter experiences suggest that a wiser U.S. policy toward Africa should focus in the first place upon the people of those countries and their needs. This was a point emphasized last month by Callisto Madavo, the World Bank’s top official for Africa.

Speaking at a five-day workshop on poverty sponsored by the World Bank in Nairobi, Kenya, Mr. Madavo said of the bank itself: "If we listen to the people we are trying to help, if we treat people as subjects rather than objects of development, if we consider not just the economic and the social aspects but also the cultural and, yes, even the spiritual aspects of human aspirations, we can be a valuable instrument in building a new future for Africa."

This empowerment of ordinary Africans, 40 percent of whom, as Mr. Madavo said, do not have the absolute minimum for a decent life, must begin with widespread schooling aimed at making all citizens functionally literate and all workers able to use whatever modern technology their jobs require.

Real progress will also mean strengthening local economies for better distribution. That cannot happen, as William Bole pointed out in last week’s issue, without relief from the burden of foreign debt.

The expansion of education should make it easier for the African peoples to develop a culture of democracy and a code of democratic ethics and practice. Africans prize their own cultures and sometimes find it hard to admit that loyalties to tribe and region often stoke violence. But there is a place for frank criticism. "Please, join the modern world," said Nelson Mandela in January when he visited Burundi in an effort to mediate the civil war that has killed 200,000 people since it started in 1993.

Americans may wonder why they should care about a war in Burundi, why they should be much interested in Africa at all. The answer depends upon whom they ask. Although U.S. trade with Africa is presently tiny, the Clinton administration believes it can be truly increased, to the benefit of all parties. The Pentagon thinks of security rather than economic interests. It knows that major upsets in Africa could threaten the United States, and it wants to be on cordial terms with the nations bordering the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic.

The best answer, though, comes from theologians, philosophers, poets and anthropologists. In their different ways, they all affirm that solidarity in a common human nature calls upon people everywhere to behave as friends.

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