President Bush’s efforts in Africa have undeniably produced accomplishments that have affected millions throughout the continent and we should be optimistic for the future. But we’ve still got much work to do — and much to learn.


In a discussion last week at the Heritage Foundation, Andrew Natsios and Walter Kansteiner extolled the successes in battling HIV/AIDS and malaria, promoting democracy through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, fostering economic growth through private sector initiatives, resolving conflicts in the Sudan, Liberia and Uganda, and launching the Africa Command to focus attention on the continent. They acknowledged that these programs ultimately succeeded because of the partnerships forged with local leadership to see them through.  

Yet every time we turn around we see another report of war, human rights atrocities, poverty, corruption, and suffering in Africa. Of course, Africa is a huge continent of 54 countries. Positive developments in some countries or regions will not necessarily show up in others. Secondly, it’s not a static environment. What we thought was stable, in the Congo for example, can suddenly turn ugly for a variety of reasons, internal and external. The peace agreement in southern Sudan hasn’t resolved the situation in Darfur. Backsliding by entrenched governments or natural disasters can derail progress, pushing a country over the edge, such as the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. And, like piracy off the Somali coast, new challenges crop up or balloon from time to time. 

Thirdly, the problems are complex, intricately linked to many other elements and often flowing across borders. Economic growth depends on the rule of law, which depends on better education, which is affected by health care for women and children, which depends on economic resources. Health conditions in Zimbabwe are spilling into South Africa. The Congo and Rwanda are deadlocked in a struggle for control of people and mineral rich land. It’s simply not simple. 

Fourthly, foreigners (be they Americans, Europeans or others) may get in the way at times. Yes, with local partners we can achieve a lot, but we don’t control what happens in Africa. We need to be humble about our role. Security and stability throughout the continent would greatly benefit Africans and the U.S., especially now that one quarter of our oil comes from Africa and we have other significant business interests there. But many factors are outside our sphere of influence, based on local politics and society or involving other actors such as regional and multilateral organizations. 

Voices from within the continent increasingly call for African solutions to African problems. General Agwai, Force Commander of the AU-UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur, believes that Africans should take the lead because they understand the specifics and context of the conflicts. The international response to violent conflicts has usually been too little, too late. At a recent CSIS discussion on Uganda, award-winning journalist Andrew Mwenda insisted that U.S. assistance to his country should be eliminated, because aid is a bad instrument of development. From his perspective, assistance has been attracted to Africa’s failures, not its accomplishments, and only exacerbated its dysfunctions. Could it be that all the money and good intentions haven’t had the sustainable results we hoped for? Can we change our approach to African issues? Are we willing, for example, to give up U.S. farm subsidies to encourage agricultural growth in Africa? 

It’s unlikely that the international community will withdraw from the African continent any time soon. After all, we have legitimate interests there. But we need to reassess our objectives and programs in individual African countries and within regions of Africa. The U.S. investment in security should be designed to protect those interests by facilitating democracy and stable growth. We could begin by talking with — and listening to — our African counterparts and allies in the region. 

African expectations for president-elect Obama are high, but we don’t have enough fingers for all the holes in the dike, especially given the current financial crisis. The next administration’s work in Africa must be creative, collaborative, and deliberately coordinated with African countries and regions. It won’t be easy.

Lynn Roche is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.