This is a joint post with Julie Walz.
The aid community is well-accustomed to pushing for transparency in foreign aid transactions. But are we missing another key flow of money?
A recent article by Geoffrey York, African bureau chief for the Globe and Mail, described a contract signed a few years ago by the Government of Rwanda with Racepoint Group, which was tasked with doing an image makeover for the Rwandan government for a monthly fee of over $50,000. The rationale was that public perceptions of Rwanda were dominated by the horrific genocide that occurred in the 1990s, along with accounts of human rights abuses and media censorship. The contract with Racepoint reportedly aimed to increase the number of stories of Rwanda's successes and block criticism of the government and its alleged human rights abuses. The effort landed more than 100 positive articles per month in newspapers from the New York Times to BBC, increased discussions of travel to Rwanda by 183%, and decreased discussion of the genocide by 11%, according to Racepoint.
In 2007, Racepoint also led a campaign to promote Libya's Gaddafi as an "intellectual and philosopher," in advance of the fortieth anniversary of his rule. Four years later, Libyan rebels hired the Washington lobby firm, Patton Boggs to help them unseat Gaddafi.
Other African governments have also invested in lobbyists. The Kenyan government contracted one of the top Washington lobbying firm Chlopak Leonard Schechter to restore its reputation after stories of election-related violence dominated the news headlines. It hoped to further U.S. support for its military and intelligence work, fighting piracy and dealing with the deteriorating situation in Somalia. Chlopak Leonard successfully placed positive stories in US media outlets and was able to call attention in Congress to the Somali crisis. President Obama's Somalia policy even includes specific recommendations from the Kenyan government's proposal to fight piracy and terrorism.
It is no secret that leaders of foreign nations routinely hire Washington lobbyists. It's been happening since Nazi agents lobbied Washington before World War II. More recently the cape-wearing "Baron" Edward von Kloberg III represented Saddam Hussein, Samuel Doe, and Mobutu Sésé Seko.
Lobbying can mute pressure on authoritarian regimes, such as the one in Equatorial Guinea. President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been called one of the world's worst dictators and is thought to have diverted tens of millions of dollars from the small country's natural resource earnings. (He also holds the title of the longest serving "leader" in Africa). His government paid the law firm of Lanny Davis millions of dollars to burnish its image. After years of lobbying, Obiang was called a "good friend" of the United States and even got a public photo opportunity with President Obama. Odds are that large oil companies with operations in Equatorial Guinea have some sway in these events. But lobbying is also a key component of Obiang's overall public relations strategy. Currently, his government is represented by Qorvis Communications, which routinely sends out cheerful e-mails announcing the various policy endeavors of one of Africa's most powerful and destructive dictators.
As international lobbying has become more sophisticated, it has also become less transparent. Under the 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), all lobbyists are technically required to disclose contracts with foreign clients twice a year. This doesn't always happen and in practice there is no penalty for lack of disclosure. Since the 1960s, the United States has not prosecuted anyone for violating disclosure rules. Accessing data that is reported also proves difficult. The Justice Department has posted image files of FARA disclosures on their website since May 2007, yet it is not in a digital format and is therefore not searchable. If you want to know how many clients Qorvis represents, and which members of Congress have met with the company, good luck.
The Foreign Lobbyists Influence Tracker, a product of ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation is a good start in the direction of greater transparency. While some lobbying by foreign governments is probably benign, in other cases, such as that done by the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, it is clearly at odds with the interests of the population and with broader development goals. What to do about it is a complex question (if you have ideas, please share them in the comments below!) but as a first step, Americans should be insisting on much greater transparency about the expenditures and direction of foreign lobbying activities in Washington.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Racepoint's campaign was scheduled in the lead up to the thirtieth anniversary of Gaddafi's rule in Libya. It was the fortieth anniversary.
Follow Vijaya Ramachandran on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vijramachandran