John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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President Obama and Africa

by John Campbell
June 29, 2012

A Sudanese child from the south, wearing a t-shirt with the picture of U.S. President Barack Obama, stands near a shelter at Mandela camp, in the outskirts of Khartoum, July 4, 2011. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Courtesy Reuters)


Journalist John Norris writing in Foreign Policy observes that Africans and and many Africa experts somehow expected that, because of his Kenyan father, President Obama’s approach to Africa would be transformative. In a thoughtful article, he asks why the Obama administration’s Africa policy has not been so different from that of Presidents Bush and Clinton.

His answer is primarily that the president has appointed career diplomats to lead the state department and U.S. AID rather than political appointees who might be more entrepreneurial. He argues that career appointees are inherently reluctant to challenge the Department of Defense with its overwhelming resources over Africa policy. He acknowledges that political appointees gravitate to the extremes—they are either very, very good or very, very bad. On the other hand, career people “run the show well, avoid obvious mistakes, and make sure they don’t get so far out in front on any given policy that it will be a career-killer when the next administration comes around.” He also acknowledges that the Obama administration has issues in addition to Africa, such as Iraq and Afghanistan and the current economic crisis. He says, “No administration will ever admit to being distracted, but this one has better reason to be than most.”

Norris certainly damns with faint praise career diplomats, of whom I was one. But, I wonder if he is asking the right question. Instead of why the administration has not pursued a “transformative” policy, the real question might be: what would a “transformative” U.S. policy toward Africa look like, and how would it be implemented? Certainly we already can and do “make a difference” in many ways. But the real question is: where could U.S. policy realistically improve for the better Africa’s trajectory to the point where it is “transformative?”

The United States, the former colonial powers, and international organizations can certainly do harm. For example, Western military training can make junior officers more efficient coup plotters; or, development “assistance” can distort economic development; or Western focus on particular diseases can distort the delivery of medical services. To work, such initiatives often require deep knowledge of the country and issues involved—perhaps an argument for career professionals who understand the dictum of “first, do no harm.”

The future of sub-Sahara Africa is in African hands, not those of outsiders. Transformation in most African states involves first and foremost improvement in governance, in ending the pervasive alienation of Africans from their governments and the elites that run them and the “fellow travelers” who support them. It also involves achievement of security, where there has been much progress over the past decade. The United States can—and does—help. But such outside efforts are at the margins. There is no U.S. policy approach that can really transform sub-Saharan Africa, only initiatives that can be helpful at the margins. This reality is reflected in the continuity of the U.S. Africa policy from one administration to the next.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Constance Freeman


    I especially liked this article and agree entirely that AFrican development is in AFrican hands and outsiders, whoever they are, can only make a difference at the margins. It is very important that both sides understand this, otherwise the “dependency syndrome” gets in the way of progress. As a former career diplomat, I found the posting balanced and very useful. I enjoy your blog very much. Connie

  • Posted by Zainab

    Ambassador Campbell asks “…the real question might be: what would a “transformative” U.S. policy toward Africa look like, and how would it be implemented?”

    Here’s a thought, how about the US starts really supporting (broad definition of support) African governments that really, truly and genuinely have the prospects of transforming the lives of ordinary Africans and bringing about rapid socio-economic development in their respective countries? How about for once, the US tampers the pursuit of its national interest that drives its foreign policy with what would truly benefit African countries in the short, medium and long term? Is that possible, feasible or realistic?

    That way, as this blog concludes “The future of sub-Saharan” would be “… in African hands, not those of outsiders.”

    Just a thought.

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