Foreign Aid: How a Trump Cut-Off Could Help Sub-Saharan Africa

Time to say goodbye to an empty and destructive sacred cow.

Beneficiaries of US aid the world over are worried about what awaits them after Trump’s inauguration – and with good reason. On the campaign trail, president Donald Trump gave little indication of how he plans to modify US foreign aid and security assistance policy, but the few comments made on the subject indicated that he is likely to put a number of previously untouchable programs on the chopping block. In one of his rare outings on foreign aid, the POTUS pledged to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us and use that money to rebuild our tunnels, roads, bridges and schools.”

And when the New York Times revealed the contents of a four-page questionnaire submitted by the transition team to the State Department, the administration’s disdain for foreign aid became blatantly obvious – especially in Africa. “With so much corruption in Africa, how much of our funding is stolen? Why should we spend these funds on Africa when we are suffering here in the U.S.?” were just some of the questions puzzling the incoming administration.

Framed within this logic, it seems increasingly likely that the incoming administration will shunt aside more minor allies with reduced aid packages – and could go so far as to dismantle entire agencies like USAID.

Critics of US aid policy, such as those who condemn military assistance to dictatorial, abusive regimes like Egyptian President Al-Sisi’s, will celebrate this development. After all, the U.S. has long backed questionable regimes, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. It’s doubtful that an isolationist, hawkish American president will want to continue this strategy of sending funds to dictatorial governments that are known to abuse their citizens. Even given the important role that Kenya and Ethiopia have been playing in anti-piracy and anti-terrorism initiatives, it remains to be seen whether Trump will be convinced that they are worthy aid recipients.Or take for instance the case of Djibouti, a tiny state on the Horn of Africa that hosts the only full-scale American military base on the continent. The country is set to receive $10.5 million in foreign assistance this year to help support initiatives in the realms of economic growth, education, security assistance, and more. Positioned on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, close to hotspots in the Middle East and East Africa, the country’s crucial location has turned it into America’s most important (yet low-profile) ally in Africa.

However, despite the billions Washington invested there since the start of the War on Terror, the state of governance and rule of law in Djibouti leave much to be desired. Last April, the president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, won a controversial fourth consecutive term, lording over a country many describe as a full-blown dictatorship. His government has been accused of human rights abuses including torture and arbitrary detention of opposition members, as well as rampant corruption, targeting of anti-government activists, and gagging independent journalists.

Guelleh has also tested the claim that aid predisposes regimes to favor Washington. Djibouti has been shifting closer to China, kicking out a small U.S. military outpost to make room for Beijing’s first ever foreign military base, which will be built an earshot away from Washington’s biggest African base. Given Djibouti’s close relations with China, Trump’s hostility towards Beijing, and his seeming indifference to the importance of foreign aid, it seems highly unlikely that the US will want to continue bankrolling the East African state.

Pete Hoekstra, a Trump advisor and former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca.), Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca.) have repeatedly criticized Guelleh’s regime and have called for a rethink of America’s policy in Djibouti. But the Obama White House refused to budge.

However, a Trump administration bent on cutting wasteful development assistance to states that are ruled by executive fiat would be a refreshing change of pace for the U.S. and would be a historic reversal to the isolationist tendencies championed by many in the Republican party. Moreover, it would send a strong signal to autocrats from Djibouti to Egypt that their putative strategic value is no longer a carte blanche to act with impunity.

At the end of the day, seeing aid as a sacred cow that should be treated with reverence is probably the most misguided foreign policy ever implemented by the State Department. If we look at development assistance, debt forgiveness and investment the global North has poured into the global South since the 1980s, the outflows add up to a whopping $16.3 trillion, or roughly the U.S.’ GDP in 2013. And what has the international community to show for it? Not much – the stark reality is that most African countries are no richer than they were sixty years ago.

Instead, we can point to a long line of Western-backed dictators that have amassed mind-numbing fortunes while their countrymen wallow in poverty. Teodorin Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s perpetual president, was recently accused of stealing $115 million – which he spent on luxury cars, yachts and Michael Jackson memorabilia. Ali Bongo Ondimba, who succeed his father as the president of Gabon and is key ally of the United States, is heir to a billion-dollar fortune. Similarly, Republic of Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso is known for his lavish lifestyle, which led French prosecutors to freeze some of his assets.

Claiming that aid is the engine of development, like high-profile economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued, is not only false, but it’s perpetuating the cycle of violence and greed that stymies the development of African countries in the first place. It’s high time the U.S. confine this wishy-washy idea to the dustbin of history.

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