This week, President Bush sets out on his second state visit to Africa. The six-day trip will take him to Benin, Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda and Tanzania. Yet it is far from clear what the people of Africa stand to gain from the visit. A lame duck president with a hostile Congress at home, Bush has little to offer the continent but platitudes.
President Bush has used his presidency to make a succession of grand statements on human rights and democracy, which he has then followed by returning to his own reactionary agenda. The man who campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” has in fact governed with a callous disregard for human life. There was nothing compassionate about his invasion and subsequent abandonment of Afghanistan. And nothing compassionate about launching a second war in Iraq designed to make multinational corporations rich and test out neoliberal ideas of pre-emptive war and “exporting” democracy.
And so on the eve of his Africa trip, it’s worth exploring exactly what policies he intends to implement when he makes rosy promises to the African continent.
Since his January 2008 State of the Union address to Congress, much of the focus of his visit has been on the promises Bush made regarding HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) promises $30 billion over five years for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. But fully one third of that money is required to go to “abstinence-only” education–programmes popular with Bush’s base back home but proven ineffectual time and again. The bill also makes outreach work with sex workers, a key constituency in the fight against AIDS, nearly impossible.
PEPFAR is dressed up to sound like a compassionate plan to help the millions of Africans affected by AIDS, but in fact it sacrifices the suffering of millions to right wing talking points. Helping those in need is never as important as throwing a bone to Bush’s base: extreme rightwingers and big business.
When it comes to alleviating the crushing poverty faced by so many Africans, President Bush is guided by the same twisted priorities. According to a White House statement, Bush is seeking to spur development by discussing how the United States can support “free trade, open investment regimes and economic opportunity” in Africa. Poverty reduction is a noble aim, but these prescriptions will not achieve it. Instead they will make rich corporations richer while stagnating–if not destroying–local economies.
The Bush administration preaches the gospel of free trade as a cure-all. But free trade, especially as practised by the US, falls short on a number of key levels. While refusing to allow developing countries to protect their own fledgling economies, the US has not recognised the hypocrisy in its own agricultural subsidies. Each year, billions of dollars in “aid” goes to large-scale farmers across the country, and the harmful effects are felt around the world. The US subsidies, and subsequent overproduction of key crops, artificially drive down global prices and have been found illegal by the WTO. One recent study found that if US cotton subsidies were removed, the price of cotton could rise by as much as 14%. The extra income in the pocket of a West African farmers–20 million of whom rely on cotton for income–could feed millions of children each year.
On the other side of the equation is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a Clinton-era measure that has undergone several mutations under Bush. AGOA largely removed tariffs and quotas on a number of goods imported to the US from 39 African countries. In exchange for this, African governments were forced to accept American foreign investment and harmful financial liberalisation.
Since the measure went into effect, imports from Africa to the US have more than quadrupled. But real benefits have been illusive. While jobs have increased, decent work is still hard to find. Labourers working well over 12 hours a day still fall short of taking home a living wage. The executive director of the International Labour Rights Forum, Bama Athreya, said: “Our goal shouldn’t simply be to provide any job through our trade policy, but to provide really decent jobs that come with dignity, respect, and the possibility that these workers can prosper in the future and expect a better life for their children.”
Workers haven’t seen benefits in the short term, and long-term development is also unlikely to materialise. The textile industries in many of Africa’s least developed countries are entirely dependent on foreign capital. Asian companies have set up factories on the continent, and domestic growth in the industry has been nil. And as Chinese exports flood global markets, African textiles have decreased for two years running, making a future upturn increasingly unlikely.
But he’s not all bad. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Bush did at least ask Congress to approve a measure that would allow 25% of the US food aid budget to go towards buying food grown locally in developing countries, rather than only benefiting US exporters as it has until now. Such a measure would increase emergency response times, benefit local farmers and prevent economic disasters when markets are flooded with cheap American produce. Bush has announced this plan four years running now. This year, as before, Congress is expected to stop it in its tracks.