On July 13, 2017, the Center for American Progress (CAP) held an event titled “America’s Relationship with Africa in a New Era.” The panel’s discussion was largely centered around their reactions to the New York Times article about the Trump administration’s prioritization of the Department of Defense’s hard military power over the softer powers of the State Department and USAID’s diplomacy and development efforts.
Former Senator Tom Daschle began with introductory remarks, many of which were later discussed by the panel. He emphasized that despite domestic drama, we cannot afford to neglect our long-term priorities, including Africa. His points included progress made under previous administrations and the harm climate change and food security issues would cause not just to African nations but to U.S. national security and stability. He then touched on how President Trump walking out on the “Partnership with Africa, Migration, and Health” session at the recent G-20 summit shows his disregard for Africa and how U.S. absence from Africa creates a vacuum which will be filled by other world powers like China.
The panel, moderated by John Norris, Executive Director of CAP’s Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative, then took the stage.
Richard Leach, the president and CEO of World Food Program USA, spoke mostly on food security issues. He argued that famine and the resulting displacement of 65 million persons in Africa are due to a combination of wars and failure on the part of the international community in providing aid. He made a plea for aiding victims of famine, saying, “Children will die because we decided not to fund it.” Leach also spoke on how foreign aid needs to be portrayed to Americans lawmakers and the public. He said that if humanitarian pleas of goodwill cannot bring about change, there needs to be more national discussion about how stability around the world is beneficial to U.S. national security needs.
Gayle Smith, a former Administrator of USAID, primarily spoke to how different government agencies have worked and may work in the future with Africa. She offered a mix of insights and predictions, some hopeful, others less so. Smith was hopeful about Ambassador Mark Smith, Trump’s nomination for USAID administrator. She also advised the audience to give credit where it’s due to politicians on both sides of the aisle when they earn it. Smith was less hopeful about the permanent damage a military approach to Africa could cause. She noted that the Department of Defense was not trying to overtake the other agencies but that if they were the only one with an adequate budget, they would have to take on additional responsibilities that they lacked the expertise to properly perform. She also noted more realities including Africa’s strong negotiating power as a bloc and that should the United States continue with our inaction, Africa will move on without us, likely to an eager China. She lastly commented on the ways schools, businesses, and the Diaspora could take the reins in bringing about positive change.
Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety, a former U.S. representative to the African Union, then spoke on how Africa views the U.S. at this pivotal point. He reiterated Smith’s point that Africa is looking beyond us, seeking more interested partners. He then talked about his fears that African leaders will mirror the language and corruption visible in U.S. leadership today and that we will lose any moral authority we have left. He also spoke of the actions that those in business, academia, and state and local governments can take until we have a new administration.
My work this summer at AFJN has been focused on land grabbing, a topic which wasn’t touched upon at this event but is connected to issues such as climate change, food security, and famine. U.S. interference in Africa is so often for self-serving purposes, and the increased popularity of land grabbing by U.S. corporations is an alarming continuation of that trend. Since the current administration isn’t likely to legislate against land grabbing or for the benefit of Africa, it is up to organizations like AFJN to continue the fight against land grabbing and for individuals and corporations to divest from land grabbing-entities.
Written by Yashi Gunawardena