Ghana, Mozambique… US looks to unshackle aid and investment for states with ‘weak governance’

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Wednesday, 16 November 2022 13:13
U.S. President Joe Biden, in Bali, Indonesia, November 16, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden, in Bali, Indonesia, November 16, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Joe Biden administration is calling on Congress to make it easier for federal agencies to fund development assistance and take investment risks as the US looks to prop up fragile African states.

In its first hearing since the mid-term elections, the Africa panel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday 15 November heard from US officials about the administration’s new strategy to prevent conflict and promote stability.

Leaders from four key agencies – the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the US African Development Foundation (USADF) – testified about their work to carry out the plan.

This spring the administration released a 10-year strategy “designed to take into account and address the underlying causes of violence and instability before conflicts and crises can break out or deteriorate”.

The strategy is based on the Global Fragility Act, a 2019 law calling on the executive branch to establish an interagency initiative to stabilise conflict-affected areas. The Biden administration has identified nine countries as partners under its plan, including seven in Africa: Libya, Mozambique and the coastal West African states of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Togo.

“The root problem, in all of these places, is weak governance of one type or another,” said Robert Jenkins, assistant administrator for conflict prevention and stabilisation at USAID.

“These governments are not resilient, which make[s] them susceptible to others that want to prey upon them; and we can see extremists do a very good job, whether it’s in Nigeria, or Somalia, or Niger, they arrive in a community, they diagnose what is going on, what’s wrong, and they exploit those weaknesses.”

Hands tied

Jenkins recently returned from a trip to Togo, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire alongside Jim Saenz (the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and stabilisation policy) and Anne Witkowsky (the assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilisation operations). The three principals are leading the implementation of the US strategy, including in coastal West Africa.

The strategy identifies four main objectives: prevention, stabilisation, partnership and management.

Jenkins told Congress that under-staffing for US missions is a problem across the continent. He said “self-imposed” “impediments” to assistance from Washington are also having a detrimental effect.

There are a lot of various laws and authorities that over time have been put into legislation, all for good reason, but now sometimes get in our way

“It is extremely hard to move money at the pace that we need […]. There’s not enough contingency funding,” he said.

“There are a lot of various laws and authorities that over time have been put into legislation, all for good reason, but now sometimes get in our way; and we need to have an open discussion with all of you on Capitol Hill about what can we waive? When can we waive it?”

Likewise, the DFC is working with Congress to ensure that it can help address the gaps and challenges to private sector investing on the continent.

“To encourage the private sector to take worthwhile risk, DFC will necessarily take on additional risk itself,” Andrew Herscowitz, the chief development officer at DFC, said in written testimony to Congress. “Following internal and external discussions about our organisational risk appetite, DFC has committed itself to take on more risk, in a disciplined and calculated way, when it can serve strategic objectives or deliver increased development results. We are continually reassessing our posture internally, and we will continue to engage with congressional stakeholders on this subject as well.”

One area where the DFC is engaged is energy. The agency, Herscowitz told Congress, is considering helping US companies competing for construction of a 143MW natural gas plant in Benin.

Blinders on?

For Rep. Karen Bass, Democrat of California, the hearing was her last chairing the Africa subcommittee hearing following her election as mayor of Los Angeles.

“Throughout my time in Congress, I have worked tirelessly to shift the paradigm from seeing Africa as a continent in need of crisis support to engaging Africa as a continent with immense opportunities for vigorous and mutually beneficial partnerships,” Bass said. “And this hearing is part and parcel of that vision.”

Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, the top Republican on the subcommittee, used his opening statement to call out the administration’s perceived reluctance to call out religion and ethnicity as drivers of conflict, particularly in Nigeria. The State Department removed Nigeria from its list of Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act last year despite continued attacks on Christians in the country, prompting an outcry from some congressional Republicans.

“The reason why we often don’t understand a country like Nigeria, in my view, is because we don’t want to see what is in front of our eyes,” Smith said.

Likewise, the approach of the fragile states meets its limits in places like the eastern Congo, where intra-state conflict is a major factor to the instability.

“What happens in Eastern Congo is much more dependent on what happens in Rwanda and Burundi than happens in their own capital back in Kinshasa,” said Jenkins. “That’s one of those places where we can try to alleviate some of the symptoms, but the underlying causes are way beyond foreign assistance.”

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