The Potential, Power, and Proof of U.S. Foreign Assistance in sub-Saharan Africa

March 29, 2013 By Ashley E. (Chandler) Chang

President Obama meets with Four sub-Saharan African Leaders

President Obama meets with President Sall of Senegal, President Banda of Malawi, President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Yesterday, President Obama sat down with President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, President Macky Sall of Senegal, President Joyce Banda of Malawi, and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde.  Why these four, you ask? Well, according to the White House, this particular visit with the leaders of these African countries “underscores the strategic importance the President places on building partnerships and substantive engagement with sub-Saharan Africa.”

Ah, so this visit falls in line with the priorities outlined in the Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) on sub-Saharan Africa President Obama signed last summer, which states “Africa is more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular.”

Got it. America’s interests are tied to the development of this region. But there are 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa to choose from, so why Sierra Leone, Senegal, Malawi, and Cape Verde, specifically?

Democratic Reform

The Administration has “strong partnerships” with these countries that are “based on shared democratic values and shared interests,” but this is because all four have made significant progress in these areas. Take for example, Sierra Leone. Not long ago, a brutal, 11-year civil war decimated the country’s infrastructure and knocked back many of its political, social, and economic development gains. Since then, Sierra Leone has made “substantial progress in transitioning from a post-conflict nation to a developing democracy.”

This is no small feat considering A) the political turmoil that has plagued many countries in West Africa continues to threaten regional stability; and B) going through a civil war pretty much doubles a country’s risk of relapsing into conflict, which by the way, also tends to happen within the first decade. Let’s do the math: the civil war ended in 2002…carry the one…whew! It looks like Sierra Leone has cleared this conflict paradigm – but it didn’t do it alone.

Good Governance and Aid Effectiveness

It should come as no surprise that Cape Verde, Malawi, and Senegal have qualified for Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) “Compacts,” which are large, five-year grants for countries that meet MCC’s eligibility criteria. Cape Verde was the first country in Africa (and second worldwide) to complete a Compact.

Malawi actually lost its Compact due to bad behavior. Seriously, the MCC takes its governance criteria, well, very seriously. However, since coming into office in 2012, President Banda and her government committed to a number of reforms and proved it was back on track, so the Compact was reinstated.  Sierra Leone’s commitment to good governance is also paying off by qualifying this past December for a smaller MCC “Threshold” grant.

Agricultural Development

Here’s another sign that our foreign assistance programs are working: When the ONE Campaign assessed 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, these four were listed among the top six to spend at least 10% (Malawi and Cape Verde) or just shy of 10% (Sierra Leone and Senegal) of their budgets on agriculture. Why is this important?

More than two-thirds of Africans depend on farming as their sole source of income.

Meaning investing in agriculture is pretty much “one of the best ways to reduce poverty in Africa.” Good thing the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future (FtF), led by USAID, works directly in two (Senegal and Malawi) of these countries and focuses on a third (Sierra Leone) through the West Africa Regional program. Fun Fact: these FtF programs also align with and work alongside the U.S.-supported Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), which is administered through the World Bank.

But wait, there’s more.

According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa not only has the potential to feed itself and stop the cyclical food crises, but also to earn billions more a year in agriculture. This potential, however, relies on a smart combination of development, private sector investment, and trade.

Notice that Cape Verde is not included as a FtF/GAFSP priority? No, there’s is no need to raise your eyebrows. As it turns out, Cape Verde has the “best development indicators of any country in the region,” which means this lower middle-income country has no need for a bilateral USAID program. Instead, U.S. assistance to Cape Verde is more targeted.

OK, so I think I finally get why President Obama met with these four democratically elected presidents. These leaders govern countries that may be in varied stages of development, but each one represents the power, potential, and even proof of aligning U.S. interests through foreign assistance with the needs of developing countries.