Obama and Democracy in Africa

In his historic speech to Ghana's parliament today, President Barack Obama put democracy and good governance at the front and center of Africa's future and America's hope for it. That is just where it needs to be. Obama could not have been more eloquent or forthright in identifying bad governance -- corruption, lawlessness, abuse of human rights, and purely superficial deference to democratic norms -- as the bane of Africa's quest for development and dignity.

Of course, the point was forcefully made from the start in Obama's choice of Ghana for his visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president. Ghana is not immune from the ills of corruption and misuse of power that plague the continent, but among the continent's sizeable countries, it has gone the furthest in achieving a reasonably liberal democracy, with repeated free and fair elections, media freedom, a pluralistic civil society, and responsible governance. And it has generated significant economic progress and significant new flows of international development assistance (and to some extent investment) as a result.

The Accra speech was historic in a number of respects. No American president has ever spoken so candidly on African soil about the real roots of Africa's development malaise, which lie in the "big man" syndrome of patronage-drenched ethnic politics, contempt for the rule of law, and wanton abuse of human rights. Perhaps only an American president whose African grandfather felt the brunt of racist European imperialism could say to Africa as frankly as Obama did that--more than half a century after decolonization--the core problem is not the colonial legacy but what Africans themselves have done and failed to do with the hopes and dreams they carried into dependence. The speech was a clarion call for Africans to assume personal and national responsibility for their own futures, and I suspect it will leave an especially deep impact on young Africans, whom Obama addressed directly and inspirationally as only he can.

This is not the first time that Obama has spoken eloquently abroad about the importance of democracy, human rights, and good governance. It formed an important, if secondary, theme of his Cairo speech last month, when, in seeking to build a new bridge of partnership and understanding with Muslims around the world, he challenged the legitimacy and sustainability of oppressive regimes, with language that resonated powerfully among Arab publics who want democratic change. It was a major element of his speech this past week to the New Economic School in Moscow. Even though that speech again had another purpose--to help "reset" the American relationship with Russia on fresh foundations of mutual respect and shared interests--it also affirmed the "universal values" of freedom of speech, press, and assembly, the rule of law and competitive elections.

In fact, the succession of messages defining to the world what his administration stands for began with his historic public speech in Prague's Hradcany Square on April 5. Mainly, that address unfolded a broad vision and commitment to work for a world free of nuclear weapons, but it began with a passionate tribute to "the courage of those who stood up and took risks to say that freedom is a right for all people, no matter what side of a wall they live on, and no matter what they look like."

During his campaign and in his young presidency, Obama has spoken repeatedly and passionately of how the "arc of history" bends in the long run toward freedom. But there is also an arc across these speeches that is, no doubt surprisingly to some of his Republican and conservative critics, committing his Administration to support, encourage, and work for the advance of freedom around the world. Clearly, it will not take the same moralistic and grandiose tone that George W. Bush often assumed. Nor will it be so openly confrontational; Obama has taken pains repeatedly to stress that he does not wish to "lecture" to other countries. But for these reasons, it could also prove more effective.

In the months ahead lies the next and more difficult challenge. In several prominent speeches and now most explicitly in Accra, Obama has renewed the American commitment to support democratic values and institutions around the world. In Accra, he has gone at least as far as Bush did to identify the inextricable link between sustainable development and responsible, transparent, law-based governance. Further, he has pledged to increase American assistance to the individuals, organizations, and governmental institutions that fight corruption and build good governance. It is a truism--but nevertheless true--that his historic speeches will ultimately be judged by his success in delivering on these commitments.

Some obvious steps would help to move the policy forward. First, it is going to require more money for democracy and governance assistance, and for generating the incentives for countries to institutionalize more transparent and accountable governance. This is a tough thing to do in hard economic times, but it is essential if Obama's rhetorical commitments are to be taken seriously. Direct democracy and governance assistance programs require only a small percentage of the record $49 billion just appropriated by the House for diplomacy and development. But the budgets for the National Endowment for Democracy and for democracy and governance programs of the U.S. Agency for International Development can be incrementally increased. It is a welcome development that the House voted a modest increase in assistance for one of George W. Bush's signature aid programs, the independent Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). But it is important that the relative independence of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and its innovative, incentive-based approach to encouraging good governance be preserved.

Second, Obama must name a new Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development as soon as possible. Development specialists had hoped that the early naming of a high-profile, vigorous leader would energize and symbolize an elevation of the development function within American foreign policy. Instead, USAID has been drifting, uncertain and to some extent demoralized, in the absence of a new leader and a clarified role.

Third, new allocations of development assistance to countries, in Africa and around the world, must continue to be reformed to reflect their relative levels of commitment to good governance, not just through the MCA but in the overall development assistance budget of USAID. The United States and other donor agencies in Europe and Japan, not to mention the World Bank and other international donors, still pour far too much money into the coffers of governments that are wasting and stealing the aid. One can only admire Obama's commitment to substantially increasing U.S. development assistance over time, as well as his visionary and urgently needed push at the recent G8 summit, for a new international assistance to improve food security in poor nations. But if Obama takes seriously his own message in Accra--that better governance is the key to development in Africa--then aid programs must find better ways to link the two, and to leverage the former in order to advance the latter.

Finally, the new Administration needs to designate a high-ranking official who will have overall authority to craft its strategies and coordinate its programs to support democratic development around the world. This could either take the form of "dual-hatting" an existing official at the National Security Council in this role (as was the case in the Bush Administration), or naming a new special coordinator for democracy programs. In the end, policy implementation comes down to people and lines of authority. Designating a high-level NSC official to coordinate the Administration's efforts to advance democracy and good governance would show that Obama is serious about joining with African peoples--and others around the world still mired in poverty and bad governance--to become, in his words in Accra, "partners in building the capacity for transformational change."

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