On his week-long trip to Africa, President Obama knew it would be hard to escape his predecessor’s long shadow when it comes to making the continent a priority for U.S. time and resources, but he’s trying anyway.
Before he left for his first extended trip to the sub-Sahara, the president was already wrestling with a media narrative that he let down the African people who expected far more face-time from the first black president and one whose father grew up in Kenya.
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton are revered in Africa. Even as he alienated other international allies with his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush is beloved across the continent for his legacy of combating AIDS in the region. Clinton won plaudits for making multiple trips to Africa and for signing a bill that eliminated trade restrictions on more than 6,000 exports to the U.S.
Obama’s African initiatives have been far quieter as the president has made expanding trade ties with Asia a hallmark of his foreign policy. But that’s a perception Obama says he’s intent on changing.
While Obama is careful not to criticize Bush’s AIDS work, which is credited with saving the lives of millions, he says he thinks it’s time to help Africa help itself.
It’s a delicate line to walk, especially with Obama sharing the African stage with Bush, who is on his own humanitarian mission there to combat cervical cancer and refurbish a clinic in Zambia.
Obama parsed his approach to U.S. intervention in Africa carefully during a rare question-and-answer session Friday with reporters traveling with him on Air Force One to Johannesburg, South Africa.
“President Bush deserves enormous credit [for his $5 billion anti-AIDS program],” Obama said. “It is really important, and it saved the lives of millions of people… What we’re doing is transitioning so that it’s not just a matter of delivering anti-viral drugs, it’s also how do we create a health infrastructure in these countries that is sustainable?”
Africa doesn’t want to be a charity case, Obama said, even as he acknowledged his policies are partly motivated by an inability to increase foreign aid during tough budgetary times and a Republican-controlled House.
“Everything we do is designed to make sure that Africa is not viewed as dependent, as a charity case, but is instead viewed as a partner – that instead of chronically receiving aid, it is starting to get involved in trade, get involved in production, and over time is going to be able to feed itself, house itself, and produce its own goods. And that’s what Africa wants.”
Even on these issues, by Obama’s own admission, the U.S. is playing catchup as Chinese and other countries’ investors have swooped in over the last few years to cultivate some of the newly stabilized areas of the country.
While the U.S. has been distracted by two wars in the Middle East and steadying the U.S. economy, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made numerous trips to the continent and trade with Africa has surged from about $10 billion in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011, and $200 billion last year, according to official figures from Beijing.
Obama put a positive spin on America losing the trade race in the region.
“I think it’s a good thing that China and India and Turkey and some of these other countries – Brazil – are paying a lot of attention to Africa,” he said. “This is not a zero-sum game. This is not the Cold War. You’ve got one global market, and if countries that are now entering into middle-income status see Africa as a big opportunity for them, that can potentially help Africa.”
What the U.S. brings to the business table is its values and democratic ideals, which he said China cannot match.
China’s primary interest, he said, is in obtaining access to Africa’s natural resources to feed the manufacturers and export-driven policies of the Chinese economy.
“Often times that leaves Africa as simply an exporter of raw goods, not a lot of value added, and as a consequence, not a lot of jobs created inside Africa, and it does not become the basis for long-term development.”
China’s and other countries’ interest in Africa should be a signal to the U.S. that “there’s great opportunity here and that we cannot afford to be left on the sidelines.”
Even as Washington has cracked down on foreign aid spending, Obama has directed billions to Africa for an anti-hunger campaign he started in 2010. Feed the Future is a $3.5 billion program aimed at helping a number of third-world countries, mostly in Africa, fight hunger and poor nutrition by developing local agriculture sectors and teaching innovative farming techniques.
During a food-security event in Senegal, Obama said the program has helped move 12 million children out of poverty. He also stressed the impact the program is having, and the private investments it’s attracting, during his session with reporters on Air Force One.
“Obviously, we’ve got budget constraints back at home, which means we’ve got to come up with new and creative ways to promote development and deliver aid – and this Food for the Future program … is doing exactly that,” he said. “Every dollar that we’re putting in, we’re getting a huge amount of private-sector dollars. We’re focusing on how do people become more productive as opposed to simply giving them food or giving them medicine.”