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When It Comes to Africa, Bush has More on His Mind Than Aid
Published on Sunday, June 12, 2005 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
When It Comes to Africa, Bush has More on His Mind Than Aid
by Torcuil Crichton

For the United States, the balance sheet of what comes out of Africa far outweighs what goes back in. Oil, raw materials and the expansion of the free market are the principal reasons the US engages in Africa, anything else is pretty much incidental.

Chancellor Gordon Brown may have wrung significant support from the US for the debt relief deal he announced after yesterday's meeting of G8 ministers, but in the balance book of persuading the richest nation on Earth to help the poorest continent, the bottom line is not all that encouraging.

At present 12% of US oil comes from Africa and by 2015, when the UN's Millennium Goals to halve world poverty will be laughably incomplete, that proportion will have reached 25%. To control the security of oil supply will, in all likelihood, require a large US military presence near the oilfields.

America will have nothing to do with the commitment to providing 0.7% of GDP (gross domestic product) for aid which the European powers have signed up to. The US will have nothing to do with Gordon Brown's International Finance Facility (IFF) which would use the sale of gold reserves to speed up the rate of aid delivery. According to aid agencies, the Bush administration's agreement on debt cancellation simply makes more economic sense than the European proposals for debt relief which would see the impoverished African nations picking up the repayment baton again halfway through the next decade.

In the same way as it blindly ignores the Kyoto targets on climate change, the US government is pursuing its own unilateral agenda on Africa and poverty reduction.

This, however, does not necessarily support the conclusions about American intentions most of Europe has already come to before George Bush steps foot on Scottish soil for the G8 summit at Gleneagles next month.

"Bush has a reputation in Europe, for grudgingly accepting that Africa has to be dealt with, but in practice he has a fairly benevolent policy in terms of aid," says Martin Meredith, whose book, The State Of Africa, a study on the 50 years of post-colonial independence, was published this month.

It's not as if Bush, who arrived in office as one of the least-traveled presidents, doesn't know where Africa is. He toured part of the continent in 2003, emphasizing the tough-love approach to poverty reduction, insisting on the entrenchment of democracy and on cleaning up state corruption.

Bill Clinton was the first US president to tour Africa while in office, and although he made large gestures about working with the continent, they amounted to very little in reality. Bush has actually delivered on promises - over the last three years the US aid to Africa has trebled.

Within the US itself, there is a perception that the world's superpower does deliver a lot for Africa. Survey after survey shows that Americans do care, do think that something should be done for Africa, do think that the US government is putting its shoulder to the wheel.

In sheer volume terms the world's largest economy is sending the largest amount of foreign aid to Africa, but as a proportion of national wealth only 0.16% of the US budget goes on aid, far short of the 0.7% of GDP that is the UN target.

A ridiculously small amount of US aid, far less than 1% of its total aid budget, is spent in sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest place on Earth. A lot of the funds go to Pakistan, to Israel, to countries that assist in the US's strategic interests. In that respect, foreign aid is, as it always was, a tool of foreign policy.

In stark contrast to Britain, which brought a wealth of diplomatic and technical know-how to post-colonial Africa, and France, which bought influence throughout the continent with generous financial support, for most of the 20th century the United States brought only guns.

The US bears a historical responsibility for numerous regional and tribal conflicts that have destabilized countries such as Angola, Liberia, Congo and Somalia.

Africa does not loom as large in the collective American conscience as it does for Europeans. For most of the last two centuries Africa was ruled by Britain and France, with Portugal and Belgium picking up the remnants of the map. Slavery and Liberia excepted, the US had little geo-political interest in Africa until the continent became a playground for cold war politics as the colonial control waned and the Soviet Union sought strategic advantage.

When the US was involved in a proxy war against communism any leader who served as a bulwark against the spread of Soviet influence was deemed good enough for money and guns. When twinned with multinational demands to continue to exploit Africa's mineral wealth, the US cold war policy for the continent often led to bizarre contradictions such as having Cuban troops guarding Angolan oil installations operated by American companies against rebel insurgents armed by the US government.

Dictators have received billions of dollars of military aid and there are enough small arms in the continent for one in 20 people to have their own personal weapon. In the two years following September 2001, the amount spent on military training for African officers has increased by over $2 million to $11.1m.

Manganese for steel, cobalt for chrome and alloys, gold, fluorspar and germanium for industrial diamonds - Africa remains a treasure trove for the world's sophisticated economies. The US continues to rely on Africa for raw materials, and for American companies there are tremendous profits in the current trade agreements that continue the age-old exploitation of the continent by the rich world.

Sub-Saharan Africa, the world's poorest place, is also its most profitable investment destination. According to the World Bank's 2003 global development finance report, the huge continent offers "the highest returns on foreign direct investment of any region in the world".

The trade and aid agreements reflect the continuing imbalance between Africa and the West.

"There is obviously poverty reduction rhetoric but when you look closely at the way aid is tied to contracts for US companies you can see that it is a different way of benefiting the domestic economy. It is being done for the benefit of US business and not for the poor of the countries receiving the aid," says Peter Hardstaff, head of policy at the UK-based World Development Movement.

The exploitation of Africa has a long and sordid history, dripping in blood and corruption and with enough blame and guilt to share between all the participants - Western governments, multinational companies and national leaders. On trade the US still does extremely well from the plunder of Africa's raw materials.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act, which sounds like a benevolent multilateral trade agreement between the US and Africa, forces participants to remove subsides from their industries (while allowing the US to subsidize its own) and insists on privatization of social services such as water even in countries that face drought.

The non-government organizations working in the continent have described the agreement as a colonial imposition that provides the US with cheap labor and goods and tax-free energy. Of course, over 90% of the sales under the agreement in its first nine months were oil exports from Nigeria and Gabon.

Not all the deals are cynical. The Bush administration's $15 billion commitment to Aids in Africa and the Caribbean, the biggest single pledge by any US administration, undoubtedly benefits America's pharmaceutical companies, but few seriously doubt that its main aim is to improve the well-being of the people of Africa and the planet as a whole.

But there are other riders to US aid. Some of the aid money - $86m of the $865m apportioned to fighting Aids in 2004 - goes to Christian faith-based organizations who promote abstinence as a means of preventing sexually transmitted disease. Most Aids prevention programs more realistically focus on education and protection.

The over-riding American concern in Africa, as it is across the entire globe, is oil security. Oil, its extraction and supply, will always be the top priority for the US. The biggest returns, and the most important product out of Africa for the coming decades, will be petroleum. The returns are not for Africans though. While 70% of Nigerians exist on a dollar a day, Shell continues to make megaprofits from oil drilling in the country, taking an estimated $30bn out of the ground since the 1950s.

At present 12% of US oil comes from Africa and by 2015, when the UN's Millennium Goals to halve world poverty will be laughably incomplete, that proportion will have reached 25%. To control the security of oil supply will, in all likelihood, require a large US military presence near the oilfields.

Fortunately for the US most of West Africa's oilfields are offshore, and so less vulnerable to sabotage, insurrection or local instability. The oil has the added benefit of having shorter transportation routes to US refineries and not having to travel through vulnerable areas of the world.

As the world passes peak oil production, and some analysts believe the top of the graph is already disappearing in our rear-view mirror, the race for oil will become paramount. Rapidly industrializing China, the US's chief competitor in the future, has already recognized the need to have Africa as a key source of mineral wealth. Agreements are already in place with the government of Sudan to provide oil that will fuel Chinese economic growth.

With oil becoming an economic weapon, there will be no shortage of regime changes, human rights abuses and privately sponsored coup attempts to control the flow of the most precious commodity.

Poverty and the needs of the African population will take second place to US geo-political strategy. In the lexicon of aid and trade, the NEPAD agreements and the AGOA, there are only three letters that really matter to the US in Africa, they are O-I-L.

© Copyright 2005 newsquest (sunday herald) limited


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