AFRICOM, Foreign Aid, and African Economic Growth

My new article, “The Political Economy of African Responses to the U.S. Africa Command,” appears in the current (fall 2010) issue of Africa Today.  Using an original dataset of over 500 references in African print and radio media outlets from 28 countries, the study uses content analysis to link aid dependence overall – and aid from the U.S. specifically – to sympathetic views of AFRICOM.  By contrast, countries sustaining high levels of growth without much aid asserted more critical views in the first 18 months after the Command’s announcement.

Nine “low-dependence” countries in the study meet two criteria: they receive less than 10 percent of their Gross National Income (GNI) in foreign aid, and they sustain an average annual growth rate of at least 3 percent since 2004.  Four “high dependence” countries meet two strict criteria: they receive at least 15 percent of their GNI in foreign aid, and at the time they were receiving or in the process of applying for aid from the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation.  A handful of countries in this category, such as Ethiopia, unfortunately had to be dropped from the study because even though the media reports strongly supported the political economy hypothesis, the keyword search of databases yielded too few hits.

Aside from the general finding that Africa’s ties to the world remains embedded within broader economic relationships, the empirical linkage is important for at least two other reasons.

First, political economists have spent much of the last two decades trying to understand the causes of economic performance in Africa instead of its effects.  Easterly and Levine (1997) famously suggested that ethnic diversity presents the greatest barrier, while more recent work emphasizes opportunity constraints which constrain policy choices (Ndulu and O’Connell, 2008).  Even though economic hardships remain for vast majorities of Africans, mounting evidence points to a sizable cohort of countries sustaining good economic performance with human capital investment.  For example, a new book published by the Center for Global Development entitled Emerging Africa, points to 17 countries with declining poverty, steady growth, and improving governance.  Despite such evidence we know far less about the effects of recent economic growth in Africa, which might inform and empower new varieties of nationalism by reducing external leverage. This will also reshape the balance of regional and sub-regional politics, as economic growth translates into political leverage.

US patrolling with Equitorial Guinea's Navy in 2008

Second, the essay questions the conventional explanation for African responses to AFRICOM, which attributes negative reactions to a public relations failure.  For example, in a Washington Post article on November 27, 2010, a retired general calls AFRICOM’s announcement “a textbook case of how you can get off on the wrong foot if you’re not good with public relations and explaining who you are and what you do.”

This view effectively discounts and marginalizes the substantive concerns relating to AFRICOM’s role in development and counter-terrorism, as well as problems with its inter-agency coordination – including ongoing skepticism among American diplomats.  The conventional view also misrepresents the military basing issue: after DOD clarified that “headquartering” AFRICOM in Africa differs from building military bases, it used this distinction to characterize African reactions as rooted in mere misunderstandings.  Plus, as AFRICOM told the Washington Post in 2010, an African location remains possible (southern Virginia is also under consideration).   How will Africans respond this time around to the DOD’s “trial balloon”?

Interested in using this article in your courses? Click here for a lecture template which makes your life easier!  It summarizes the main findings and contains helpful charts and photos.  It also lists discussion questions, likely critiques, and recommends some additional readings.

4 thoughts on “AFRICOM, Foreign Aid, and African Economic Growth

  1. ebere ONWUDIWE

    Africom underscores a new place for Africa in the priority list of US foreign poicy. This is not unimportant. It may be that it is this objective fact rather than “high” dependency that may explain the support of aid dependent countries. Whatever the case, you have given us a great piece to read and think./eo

  2. Emmanuel Remi Aiyede

    AFRICOM represents permanent and direct military engagement with Africa on the part of the US. This is unprecedented. Certainly,many African countries will not encourage direct military activities because of the consequences for US political influence and interferencere. However, the US seems an indispensable country for many states, which can ill afford open disagreement with the US on security matters. Some states like Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Libya want to maintain their regional/subregional spheres of influence in the countinent, which could be upset by AFRICOM’s looming presence. Hence, they will prefer, US intervention always through the AU, instead of AFRICOM.ERA

  3. Pingback: America’s Move in Niger | International Affairs at LSE

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