America Is Losing in Africa

By Sean Lavelle

In the face of an increasingly influential Soviet Union, America was forced during the Cold War to provide aid to the developing world in order to prevent the poorest humans on our planet from having no choice but to give their loyalty to Marxist ideology. That policy worked in its time. Today, however, with the new challenges the U.S. must address, a new strategy is required.

The United States gave more than eight billion dollars in aid to the African continent in 2009. There are legitimate reasons America still gives this money even after the fall of communism: it wants to build markets in which it can trade, it wants to be moral and it wants political influence. The problem is that if Americans really value these things, aid is an inferior policy preference.

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China spends significantly less on humanitarian assistance than the United States in Africa, yet had a slightly larger trade volume with the continent in 2010. The U.S. needs to learn from the model that China is exporting to Africa before it loses its place as the dominant superpower in the region.

Rather than focusing on humanitarian aid and hoping that this will somehow bring people out of poverty, China, with its 'Going Global Strategy,' has decided to help its business expand overseas, building wealth for themselves and for the developing world. With America's already strong foothold in the developing world, it could likely pursue a robust strategy similar to China's. America could spend less on humanitarian aid and invest more in infrastructural projects. Donating goods solves short term suffering, but subverts local markets that are trying to fulfill local needs, stifling the only long term solution to poverty. A better approach would be to build up industry within Africa, helping American businesses take the lead along the way.

Much ink has been spent in the past few years on the unhealthy state of America's financial situation, and President Obama needs to focus on how his foreign policies are affecting the U.S. domestic economy. America's current posture is not taking advantage of the opportunities available in the developing world. Like China, the United States needs to shift from donation to investment. It needs to shift from an unsustainable model to a growth model.

China has the right idea, but the U.S. can improve upon it. The Middle Kingdom often alienates host governments with heavy handed tactics and uncompassionate treatment of indigenous employees. Zambia's recent election saw Michael Sata, the 'anti-china' candidate, win after China threatened to cut ties with the nation if he were elected. Sata campaigned on the premise that it was in Zambia's best interest to expel Chinese immigrant workers and institute capital controls that would prevent Chinese firms from moving profits out of the country.

Instead of being insensitive to the public when conducting business and ignoring local laws, America could help its companies negotiate deals that are less lucrative but more popular, maintaining its significant political influence. Maintaining a lofty, moral narrative about America's interactions with the world is desirable, and entirely attainable even while shifting away from an aid industry that is plagued by corruption.

When an African reflects on which superpower helped him most in the coming decade, he will reach his conclusion easily. The Americans gave him some medicine and a mosquito net. The Chinese gave him a job paying more than he could have ever dreamed so that he could buy his own medicine and mosquito net, with change to spare. There is dignity in the Chinese model that the American method lacks. However, if America adopts a softer spin on the Chinese approach, it could reverse the losses it has suffered against China in the developing world and boost its economy significantly, all while maintaining its hard earned political influence.

If it does not change course, the United States will one day wake up to a developed Africa that does not need aid and does not need America. It's time to stop looking at Africa as a place to exercise our charitable instincts and start looking at Africa as a partner in the global economy.

Sean Lavelle is a Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, has traveled and worked extensively in Africa and is a Junior Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.

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