At his final economic summit, President Bush highlighted his commitment to Africa, where he has increased assistance and programs to reduce HIV/AIDS. But a more enduring legacy may be a change in U.S. military structure that gives the Pentagon a bigger role in U.S. policies toward Africa.
Scheduled to become fully operational October 1, 2008, the new Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, is developing at a time when the Pentagon controls an increasing share of foreign aid that used to be directed by civilian agencies. The percentage of Official Development Assistance that the Pentagon controls has skyrocketed from 3.5% to nearly 22% in the past decade. Meanwhile, the percentage controlled by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) shrunk from 65% to 40%. AFRICOM is poised to perpetuate this troubling trend of increasingly militarized US foreign aid, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US soldiers have stepped in to fill the breach left by the diminishing capacity of the State Department and USAID. They are doing everything from building schools to mentoring city councils, often in situations where they don't know the language and are unfamiliar with the culture. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself has admitted that this arrangement is "no replacement for the real thing -- civilian involvement and expertise."
AFRICOM initially likened itself to a civilian aid agency, with plans to make Africa more secure while promoting "development, health, education, democracy and economic growth," according to President Bush. It hit its first roadblock when relief and advocacy organizations protested that, as an extension of the Department of Defense, AFRICOM would further politicize the distribution of humanitarian aid. Since then, the Bush administration has scaled back its ambitions for AFRICOM. Its official mission is now sustained security engagement via military operations to promote a stable and secure Africa. This new mandate could lead to the long-term peace and security necessary for true poverty alleviation -- if AFRICOM follows through on it.
But so far AFRICOM is more concerned with fighting the Global War on Terror than addressing Africa's most urgent stability needs. Following 9/11, the US designated Africa as an area of "strategic concern." Since then, with the exception of HIV/AIDS funding, our resource allocation in Africa has been totally out of whack.
Pentagon programs in Africa fund immediate, short-term security programs rather than the broader U.S. commitment to aid the growth of prosperous, stable countries. For example, more than half of the FY09 budget request for Foreign Military Financing in Africa is for just two countries -- Djibouti and Ethiopia -- that are considered key partners in the continental War on Terror. There also seems to be little logic to funds requested for security assistance. The administration has asked for $49.65 million to finish building a 2,000-strong Liberian army to defend the four million people of that country. In contrast, it only plans to spend $5.5 million in 2009 to restructure a 164,000-strong army that is out of control in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with 65 million people where Africa's "first world war" has claimed the lives of over five million.
It's no wonder, then, that African nations have taken it upon themselves to put on the brakes. The 14-nation Southern African Development Community, along with Nigeria, Botswana and Libya, all oppose AFRICOM and refuse to host a base on their soil.
Even with its shortcomings, however, AFRICOM still presents an unprecedented opportunity to promote peace and security if it focuses on two roles: helping African countries train and professionalize their militaries and supporting peacekeeping forces during transitions from war to peace. This would be far more effective than undertaking development and humanitarian activities of which it has no experience. In doing so, we can help the 53 member states of the African Union raise living standards for 80 percent of the world's poorest people in the most under-governed continent in the world.
But changes must be made now, before AFRICOM becomes fully operational in a continent that resoundingly opposes its current incarnation. More funding is needed to address the current 17 to 1 spending imbalance between defense and diplomatic/development operations. A meaningful collaboration among the State Department, USAID and the Defense Department could kill three birds with one stone: help the US and African nations to fight terrorism, assist African countries with sustainable economic development, and build goodwill on the ground among humanitarian agencies, African legislators and civilians.
President Bush is right to care about Africa. It is a continent of great problems -- poverty, warfare, genocide and disease -- and great promise, expanding economic growth, improving governance and new opportunities for trade.
The direction AFRICOM ultimately takes matters not only for the future of Africa, but also for the future of US long-term security and goodwill. If we continue to militarize our foreign aid, we will not only be met with hostility and skepticism from the global community, but, more importantly, we'll fall woefully short of our goal to lift Africa's share of the "bottom billion" out of poverty. It's a lesson that the next president should take to heart.
Ken Bacon, President, Refugees International