Politics of Poverty

5 actions to make President Obama’s trip to Africa a huge success

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Issues where the President’s influence is greatly needed on the continent

There’s been a lot of hoopla about the cost of President Obama’s upcoming trip to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania in Washington, but I guess that’s what it costs to ship limousines, bullet proof glass, and set up temporary medical evaluation units.

It’s expensive, but President Obama can make this trip a great investment with huge payoffs for both US taxpayers and for the people of the African continent by delivering on five things:

1. Ensure transparency in the extractive industries.  Africa’s oil, gas and mineral exports amount to more than $300 billion dollars a year, but instead of building roads, schools and hospitals for Africa’s people, this money often leads to more poverty and inequality. To the millions of people living near oil and mining sites—many who struggle to survive on less than $2 a day—the resource curse doesn’t mean a share of the wealth, but it does mean environmental damage, loss of land, and human rights abuses.

President Obama must urge African leaders to jump on the transparency bandwagon, such as completing work on an enforceable regional mining code in West Africa that would provide important information to the public and provide communities with the right to make decisions about these projects. The US and European Union now require oil and mining companies to disclose payments to governments and African governments can follow the lead of Ghana, Liberia and other countries by making transparency of payments a legal requirement in their own borders as well. Arming African citizens with the knowledge of how much money oil and mining companies pay their governments gives them the opportunity to claim their rights and fight for their own development.

How will Obama tackle issues of poverty and inequality in Africa? Oxfam campaigners and volunteers wearing "Big Heads" representing G20 leaders in 2009. Photo: Chris Rolinson / Oxfam America
How will Obama tackle issues of poverty and inequality in Africa? Oxfam campaigners and volunteers wearing “Big Heads” representing world leaders at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in 2009. Photo: Chris Rolinson / Oxfam America

2. Make foreign assistance more transparent. On his last trip to Africa in 2009, President urged Africans to take more leadership of their own development.  But the US government makes this harder than it should be, by not releasing information about where US foreign aid is going and how it’s being spent.  Too often, Africans lack basic information about US aid investments, making it hard for them to plan their efforts or hold their own governments accountable for results.  It also causes confusion and mistrust about American motives.

While the President has previously made multiple commitments to transparency of US global development programs, including the 2011 Open Government Partnership, the US government bureaucracy has failed to follow through.  As one of the largest aid donors in the world, the US shouldn’t be one of the least transparent!  On this trip, the President needs to set a firm deadline for when his administration will meet their promises to open the book on US foreign aid—preferably before the October Open Government Partnership Conference in London.

For that matter, making banking and tax information more transparent could help, too.  At the G8 meeting last week in Northern Ireland, President Obama committed to collecting more information from shell companies that are often used for nefarious activities. But he didn’t commit to making this information public or available to African countries that really need it to follow the illicit money that leaves their countries or comes in from suspicious sources.

3. Recommit to local control.  On his first presidential trip to Africa, President Obama declared that Africa’s future must lie with Africa’s institutions. He got it right, and on his return to Africa, he must strengthen these partnerships. President Obama can support strong democratic institutions in Africa by committing to invest directly in local systems – both government and citizens – and work to increase transparency of budgets, aid investments, and extractive industry revenues to governments. His Administration’s push in this direction at USAID is getting some good reviews from partners and civil society in developing countries. But progress on the ground has been slow; we must make more direct investment in local efforts, and quicker.

President Obama could also follow the lead of African countries by easing up pressure to impose strict intellectual property law that would raise the cost of medicines on poor people.  And he could take steps to make the US more open to African products, providing an economic boost for poor countries.

4. Commit to signing the International Arms Trade Treaty and urge other leaders to do so.  The unregulated global arms trade, which increases the availability of small arms and ammunition in conflict zones, is fueling wars and human rights abuses against civilians. More than 740,000 men, women and children die each year as a result of armed violence. Such conflict also squanders resources on an enormous scale. In Africa, conflict cost the continent an estimated $284 billion between 1990 and 2005,  an average of about $18 billion a year that could have been spend on vital services such as education, roads, and health care. The United Nations overwhelmingly passed the Arms Trade Treaty in April that will prevent dangerous weapons from getting into the hands of war criminals and violent extremists. Although the US voted for the treaty, President Obama has yet to sign it.

5. Ramp up the Rural Resilience Initiative (R4).  What do you get when you pair up small scale farmers in developing countries with large multinational insurance companies?  You might get a comprehensive, long-term strategy to improve the food security and resilience of smallholder farmers in Africa. The innovative R4 program initially piloted by Oxfam and SwissRe in Ethiopia and now expanded to three more countries with the support of the World Food Program, the Rockefeller Foundation and USAID, aims to give farmers and rural communities in developing countries the resources they need to manage their own risk in the face of a changing climate. Through R4, farmers are able to take out weather-indexed insurance and pay for their premiums through labor in WFP’s food-and-cash-for work programs. Community members work on irrigation and forestry projects that will reduce the impact of climate change for their villages. An announcement on a major ramp up and expansion of R4 would make a world of difference for Africa’s farmers.

Indeed, the 60 to 100 million dollars cost of Obama’s trip could go far in the fight against poverty in Africa. But the trip is only the second to the continent since the President assumed the presidency, and when you look at these issues, his leadership is sorely needed.

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