Friday August 22 2014

Will the shift from aid to trade eradicate poverty in Africa?

By Richard Ssewakiryanga

The week of 4th August was a buzz of activity in every African capital and Washington DC. For the first time in Obama’s administration, more than 30 African leaders converged in the US capital to meet President Obama. The US-Africa Summit was an enigmatic epoch because of both its timing and its thematic focus. In terms of timing, it was coming very late in the Obama regime. Being an African-American with post-colonial roots to Africa, there was an expectation that President Obama could have looked at Africa much more favourably during his regime. Meeting in 2014 with only two years left on his last term suggests that any follow-up action will have to be re-marketed to the next US president.

The week was intriguing and exciting. This was the first time, I had ever heard the words - Africa, future, trade, billions - used in one sentence more times than I could remember. Just as big words kept flowing, so did big bucks. The Power Africa initiative was announced with the Swedish government putting $16 billion on the table. The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition was launched with a kitty of $76 billion. The Global Resilience Partnership was announced and Rockefeller put $100 billion. So, anyone who was in the US that week left impressed by the billions of dollars that Africa was to receive courtesy of the Obama administration and its partners.

The signature event of the week was the Bloomberg supported Business Forum that brought together CEOs from African and American firms and Obama’s guests – the presidents of Africa. This event was addressed by President Obama where he not only thanked the business sector for the work they do in Africa but also made it clear that it is trade and not aid that Africa needs. This was a line echoed by many presidents and I would argue that probably President Museveni should have copyright for this byline. For two decades, he has always argued that Africa is a donor to the West.

For civil society, it was not clear if their presence in the US capital mattered. There was a Civil Society Organisation (CSO) day, which looked like a hastily thrown together event with about 10 parallel sessions that happened in the first half of one morning. There was no space in the programme to come together to synthesise the messages from the different 10 sessions. The second half of the morning was dedicated to a two-hour CSO town hall event opened by the Secretary of State who spoke for about five minutes, followed by a moderated panel by host of Voice of America’s Straight Talk Africa, Shaka Ssali. In attendance were the presidents of Tanzania, Ghana and a couple of civil society leaders.

The CSO town hall meeting was fully energised but like all events where you have 700 participants trying to speak in a space of 30 minutes, there was very little that could be achieved. US Vice President Joe Biden closed the town hall meeting, striking the right cords and narrating how his teeth were cut in civil society and how civil society is a life blood of democracy. The rest of the week saw different civil society leaders darting from one event to another – very far away from their own presidents. The fact that civil society and the presidents from Africa did not get a chance to meet spoke volumes.

Two questions remained unanswered, one: Will the shift from aid to trade guarantee eradication of poverty in Africa? Two: How will the billions announced by Obama stay out of the pockets of corrupt leaders? Like the perplexing Ebola scourge that has no cure (and even stopped two invited presidents from going), the questions of how this trade talk will turn into poverty reduction seems to still have no known cure.

Mr Ssewakiryanga is the executive director - Uganda National NGO Forum.