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American aid to Africa

Those who expect Obama to shower the continent with gifts will be disappointed, but the president is building on a solid foundation of increased assistance overseas.

July 15, 2009

During his speech to Ghana's parliament on Saturday, President Obama sounded a familiar refrain: Africa must be made and remade by Africans, and the United States will continue to support nations on the path to progress. To critics, that meant he had nothing new to say -- it was the same message about good governance they'd heard from presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. No new programs or initiatives for Africa.

But just because the message is old doesn't mean it's not worth repeating. Obama is building on a solid aid network that Bush created on the African continent. Most foreign-aid advocacy groups give the U.S. high marks on its expansion of programs that fight poverty and disease overseas.

In 2004, both sides of the aisle in Congress agreed that increasing aid to Third World countries was essential to furthering national security and foreign policy goals. The Bush administration figured out ways to channel the funding to responsible countries while setting up a transparent oversight system, ensuring that foreign-aid money wasn't siphoned off by corrupt regimes.

One such "smart aid" program is the Millennium Challenge Corp., which is going strong in 11 countries in Africa -- and especially in Ghana. By 2011, Ghana will have received $547 million to pay for roads, rural development and training tens of thousands of farmers in commercial agriculture, growing crops that might someday be exported to the U.S. Obama's budget request calls for $1 billion to fund Millennium Challenge for the 2010 fiscal year, a significant commitment during a recession. Congress' passage of a budget this year that puts the U.S. on course to double foreign assistance by 2015 is a promising sign that this dedication will continue.

Furthermore, last week's Group of 8 summit promised $20 billion (of which $3.5 billion would come from the U.S.) for agricultural development, much of which will greatly benefit Africa. G-8 members have a bad habit of ignoring these commitments, but there's every reason to believe that the U.S. will keep its word.

The expectations surrounding Obama and how he will approach Africa, as a man only one generation removed from it, are enormously high. He made it clear last weekend that those who expect him to shower the continent with gifts will be disappointed. Although it was Bush who planted the seeds for a more mutually beneficial partnership between the United States and Africa, his foreign policy elsewhere made him deeply unpopular from Madagascar to Morocco; under Obama, the relationship has a chance to flower.

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