Cognitive Disconnect: Let’s Invest in Systems, Not Bandaids or Exploitation…

“[T]he United States is determined to be a partner in Africa’s success — a good partner, an equal partner, and a partner for the long term” – President Barack Obama, Remarks at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum

As noted on the GHETS blog, the U.S. news coverage of Africa has been of two very different tones this week. We saw the White House hosting a big forum of African leaders to discuss economic development and U.S. investment in Africa and, with it, lots of talk about how Africa represents the world’s economic future. We also saw two Americans come to a hospital in Atlanta after contracting Ebola in the recent outbreak in Western Africa and, with it, little discussion of the lack of strong health systems that allow this type of outbreak to happen. It was a very strange cognitive disconnect to watch.

In his speech to the Business Forum, President Obama took great pains to make sure that it was clear that the U.S. is not looking to exploit Africa’s resources, but “partner” with Africa to everyone’s benefit. Moving past the inherently problematic concept that one nation is an equal partner with an entire continent, the sentiment doesn’t make it to the end of the speech.

Earlier in his remarks the President mentions a comment he got from a Ugandan woman at the town hall in Soweto, South Africa to frame his whole speech. She told him that “‘we are looking for equal business partners and commitments, and not necessarily aid. We want to do [business] (sic) at home and be the ones to own our own markets.’” This idea is in line with the idea of “equal partners” that the President was promising, but is in direct contrast with his statements just a few paragraphs later:

“American companies are announcing major new deals in Africa. Blackstone will invest in African energy projects. Coca-cola will partner with Africa to bring clean water to its communities. GE will help build African infrastructure. Marriott will build more hotels.”

This contrast highlights what is so flawed about American concepts of aid and investment in underserved communities around the world. The Ugandan woman was looking for equal business partners so that she and her community could build their own strong economy. Marriott building more hotels is not American companies being equal business partners with a Ugandan hotel owner, it is American companies looking for new places to make a profit and thereby by extracting something far more insidious than the “natural resources” the President promises are not the goal of American investment. These types of partnership extract the capital needed for African communities to build strong local economies.

This cognitive disconnect reflects what we have been saying about the problems with American aid for a long time. The intentions might be good (though aren’t always so), but the practice simply isn’t. This is why the Ebola story has such interesting timing. Just as Marriott building more hotels doesn’t actually bring African voices into the trade conversation or help local economies, American aid doesn’t actually do enough to increase the health of the communities it is meant to help. Ebola is a perfect example of how vertical funding that focuses on dealing with specific diseases isn’t an effective long term strategy. Without a strong health system, it is no surprise that something like Ebola could run rampant. What’s worse is that we know that many parts of Africa don’t have the capacity to handle such a disease as evidenced by the fact that we flew the Americans who contracted the disease halfway around the world to Atlanta for treatment.

Possibly the most frustrating part of this whole thing is that the sentiments of the President about “equal partners” are pretty on point (save the disparity between the power of one nation being only theoretically equal to that of an entire continent). African voices should be at the table and, at the very least, be equal partners in determining the direction of their own communities. The Ugandan woman the President mentions expresses a sentiment that we hear all of the time: we don’t just want aid, we want a say. That comment should not be taken to mean that we should abandon aid in favor of American corporate exploitation investment, but rather that we must recognize that people in the communities that we are trying to serve are the ones who should be determining the direction of their community’s own development.