US taps private sector to help save democracy in Africa

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: US – Africa: Evolving relations

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 21 September 2022 11:08, updated on Monday, 10 October 2022 17:23

Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) addresses a news conference on the drought situation in Kenya and in the Horn of Africa, next to Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Ministry of Public Service and Gender Margaret Kobia, in Nairobi, Kenya July 22, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

The US government is throwing its weight behind the private sector to help fledgling democracies in Africa and beyond deliver tangible benefits for their citizens as freedom recedes around the world.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) unveiled its new ‘Democracy Delivers’ initiative on 20 September, on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly in New York. The goal is to leverage millions of dollars in public-private partnerships to assist newly responsive governments to take care of their people.

The event highlighted eight countries deemed to be moving in the right direction. These include the African nations of Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia.

“Each of the countries that we have with us […] has inspired us and inspired President Biden with their determination to push ahead and try to create a freer, more just and more equal society in their own nation,” USAID Administrator Samantha Power said. “Often they are pushing against strong headwinds, against really difficult legacies and inheritances.”

The US experience, she said, proves that winning elections is not enough. “We have to deliver real results for our people,” Power said. “Democracy must deliver.”

For his part, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “People all around the globe … are demanding democracy, demanding human rights, demanding accountable government, and routinely come up to the polls, or sometimes into the streets, to reject corruption, to reject repression, to reject authoritarianism.”

Democracy and investment go together

“In this room, around this table, we see the results of many such movements, inspiring leaders who rode waves of popular support for democracy, and anti-corruption in the office – but who now need to prove …  that their reform agendas can actually deliver tangible benefits for the people that they represent,” Blinken said. “That really is the task before us.”

Worthy candidates?

The initiative follows last year’s Summit for Democracy, during which the White House announced a new $425m Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal as Biden’s answer to America First disinterest in global freedom under President Donald Trump. Blinken said in the first year, some $55m of that will go to USAID partnerships for democratic development.

This comes at a critical time for Africa.

The continent has witnessed a rash of coups over the past couple of years. For 2022, the Washington think tank Freedom House rated only eight African countries as fully free (Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Seychelles and South Africa) – the worst showing since 1991.

Still, polling by Afrobarometer shows that 70% of Africans agree with the statement that “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government”.

The three countries highlighted at the USAID event all represent a hopeful break from their authoritarian past.

Malawi made history in 2020 when President Lazarus Chakwera became the first African opposition leader to win a rerun election. Last year, he wrote an op-ed for The Africa Report arguing that “Africa needs good governance focused on delivery”.

“There are so many … laws to help consolidate democracy,[but they] require adequate awareness,” he said in New York. “Beyond the traditional means of awareness, we would like to ensure that information is available on digital platforms, and we, therefore, welcome support towards the setup of digital infrastructure and human capacity.”

[…] those who believe in free societies and free markets need to help your citizens … feel the difference that democracy and reform can make in their lives.

In Tanzania, President Samia Suluhu Hassan – the country’s first female leader – succeeded John Magufuli following his death in office in March 2021. Since then, she has courted foreign investors and opened the space for the media and the opposition.

“The focus has been on reforms to strengthen economic and democratic governance,” Vice President Isidori Mpango said at the launch of ‘Democracy Delivers’. “[…] to give some breathing space in the private sector to improve the business environment, simplifying the fiscal regime undertaking legal reforms as well as supporting partnerships.”

Finally in Zambia, President Hakainde Hichilema defeated the incumbent Edgar Lungu in August 2021.

“Since we assumed office just about a year ago, Zambia is making enormous strides as a democratic country,” Hichilema said, from “heavy-handed” to “really a country that is probably moving very fast, faster than many expected.”

The countries’ democratic transitions remain a work in progress, however.

Just this month, for example, Malawi shut down three television and six radio stations for their alleged failure to pay annual licence fees, raising doubts about Chakwera’s democratic credentials.

Money talks

USAID’s goal with the new program is to raise money from private businesses and foundations.

“Rather than simply promote democracy the way we always do, through election support, or investments in independent media … those who believe in free societies and free markets need to help your citizens … feel the difference that democracy and reform can make in their lives,” Power said. “We need to help you diversify your economies, form new trade relationships, create jobs, deliver better health care and tackle inequality and provide reliable human services, and that’s why we convene everyone here today.”

To that end, the agency said it was providing an extra $5m to expand British telecommunications company Vodafone’s free m-mama ride-sharing program for pregnant women in Tanzania and eventually Kenya. The Vodafone Foundation is putting $10m toward the expansion of a program already credited with transporting more than 15,000 women and newborns and saving 300 lives.

“Democracy and investment climate go together, whether it’s governance and transparency, high standards for due diligence, or environmental, social labour issues,” said Scott Nathan, CEO of the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). “Democracy and investment go together.”

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