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Militarization of U.S. Aid to Africa Raises Concerns

July 28, 2008


There is little debate about the fact that most African states will need help developing their economies for some time to come. African aid (or lack thereof) was a major topic of both discussion and protest at the latest G8 meetings. Several new reports, however, raise concerns that American foreign aid has shifted towards military aid to combat terrorism and away from development aid. Critics of such a shift are concerned that the trend will continue with establishment of the U.S. Africa Command [“Report: U.S. Africa Aid Is Increasingly Military,” by Stephanie McCrummen, 18 July 2008]. McCrummen writes:

“U.S. aid to Africa is becoming increasingly militarized, resulting in skewed priorities and less attention to longer-term development projects that could lead to greater stability across the continent, according to a report released Thursday by the advocacy group Refugees International. The report warns that the planned U.S. Africa Command, designed to boost America’s image and prevent terrorism, is allowing the Defense Department to usurp funds traditionally directed by the State Department and U.S. aid agencies.”

The Department of Defense is an easy target. It commands the lion’s share of funding among U.S. governmental departments and has a reputation for wasting money on bloated and mismanaged weapons programs. The latest hubbub is over “comfort capsules” being designed by Air Force generals for Air Force generals so that they can fly from point to point in greater comfort. Of course, there is nothing wrong with pointing out waste in government wherever it occurs. The late Senator William Proxmire became famous for his Golden Fleece awards that focused media attention on projects he felt were self-serving and wasted taxpayer dollars. It’s not surprising that an organization as large as the Department of Defense often finds itself in the harsh light of criticism. In the past, accusing the military of usurping funds from the State Department and aid agencies was both credible and accurate.


The current Secretary of Defense, however, has openly called for more funds for those groups. Early in his tenure as SecDef, Robert Gates formally called “for a ‘dramatic increase’ in the U.S. budget for diplomacy and foreign aid, arguing that al-Qaeda does a better job than Washington of communicating its message overseas and that U.S. deployment of civilians abroad has been ‘ad hoc and on the fly.’ In a speech that emphasized the importance of ‘soft power’ to prevent and end conflicts, Gates suggested beefing up the State Department’s foreign affairs budget of $36 billion, even as he acknowledged that Pentagon observers might consider it ‘blasphemy’ for a sitting defense secretary to make such an appeal for another agency [“Gates Urges Increased Funding for Diplomacy,” by Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, 27 November 2007]. McCrummen underscores the fact that Gates has not changed his mind about that subject in months since he delivered that speech.

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned this week against the risk of a ‘creeping militarization’ of U.S. foreign policy and said the State Department should lead U.S. engagement with other countries. The Pentagon, which controlled about 3 percent of official aid money a decade ago, now controls 22 percent, while the U.S. Agency for International Development’s share has declined from 65 percent to 40 percent, according to the 56-page report.”

Facts are facts, but historical trends cannot necessarily be projected linearly into the future. Hopefully, the next president will appoint someone as enlightened as Robert Gates to lead the Defense Department and the trend will be reversed.

“[Mark Malan, author of the report for Refugees International,] said the militarization has been driven by the U.S. focus on counterterrorism, though the trend dates to the Cold War era. The more fundamental problem, he said, is a lack of consistent, coherent U.S. foreign policy attention to Africa. For example, the United States has dedicated nearly $50 million to hire contractors to train 2,000 soldiers in post-civil war Liberia, a West African country of 4 million people. Meanwhile, $5.5 million has been dedicated to boosting a weak and unprofessional army of 164,000 soldiers in Congo, a country of 65 million where a decade-long conflict and humanitarian crisis have left an estimated 5 million people dead.”

I agree with Malan that the U.S. needs a more coherent and consistent African policy. However, it needs to develop it in concert with other likeminded nations rather than unilaterally. Africa’s problems are so numerous and widespread that only a coordinated global effort has a chance of making real progress. Reducing corruption on the continent should be at the top of the agenda. As long as corruption is rampant, aid programs will continue to receive little bang for the buck. What neither Mallon nor Gates wants to see is the new U.S. Africa command being the organization that sets the agenda for Africa.

“The headquarters of the new African command post, known as Africom, has not been determined, and many African leaders have rejected hosting it. A temporary headquarters is being set up in Stuttgart, Germany, and is expected to begin consolidating responsibility for the continent in October. Africom in part aims to better integrate U.S. efforts in Africa by coordinating military activities with the State Department and other agencies, but ‘the State Department is being overwhelmed by the Pentagon,’ Malan said. That concern was also raised in a Government Accountability Office report on Africom released this week. The report noted that Africom, which is to have about 1,300 employees, has had difficulty integrating 13 staff members from the State Department and other agencies. ‘State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development officials have expressed concerns that Africom will become the lead for all U.S. efforts in Africa, rather than just DOD activities,’ the report said.”

The military is fond of saying “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” The fact that a coherent and consistent African foreign policy has not been forthcoming from any other department or agency means that the military has by default become the leader. The solution to this conundrum is not to muzzle the military but to provide it with guidance and leadership that it can readily get behind. In this instance, the military will be much happier being the supporting rather than the supported organization.

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