Econ-Atrocity: Beyond good intentions: Is U.S. newly-found interest in Africa real?

By Leonce Ndikumana, Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

American interest in Africa has been traditionally peripheral, opportunistic at best. In the past, aid to African countries supported client regimes that the United States and its allies needed to prevent the expansion of communism on the continent, as in the case of former Zaire under the late Mobutu Sese Seko. In these circumstances, the objective of economic aid was not economic development of African countries, but instead aid often contributed to propping up dictatorships that catered to the interests of the West.

In the last decade, the U.S. has proclaimed newly-found interest in African economic development and has promised to commit more resources to the continent. The U.S. “discovery” of the continent was highlighted by the 1998 historic expedition by then president Bill Clinton, whose mission included a short stop at the Kigali airport where he apologized for the failure of the United States and the international community to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, President Bush is scheduled to make his first visit to the continent in mid-January 2003. Recently, the Bush Administration has expressed its commitment to African economic development as part of U.S. national interests: “A growing African economy and regional stability enhance the economic prosperity and national security of the United States and the spread of democratic values”. The Bush Administration seems to understand that with the increased threat of global terrorism, the U.S. cannot afford to ignore an entire continent.

The intentions of helping Africa are certainly evident; but only in principle. In practice, sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) remains a marginal partner in U.S. international cooperation. From 1962 to 1996, SSA received a total of US$24billion in economic assistance from the United States. This is less than economic assistance to Israel alone during the same period ($24.7bn) and only slightly more than aid to Egypt ($22bn). In 2000, the U.S. disbursed $1.5bn in economic assistance to SSA, compared to $0.95bn to Israel, $0.7bn to Egypt, and $1.9bn to Latin America. Each sub-Saharan African inhabitant received only $2.30 of U.S. aid compared to $152 per capita for Israel, $11 for Egypt and $3.80 for Latin America. Evidently, there is a gap between the official rhetoric with regard to interest in Africa and actual aid flows.

Even before the declaration of war against global terrorism by the Bush Administration in 2001, the U.S. exhibited strong preference for the “guns” of military aid over the “butter” of development aid. In 2000, the U.S. allocated as much as $29bn to military expenditures and less than half that amount to economic assistance to all countries combined. This implies that
on average, each four-member household in the U.S. contributed about $4000 to military expenditures but only $320 to economic assistance that year the average American household contributed 12 times more in “war effort” than in “aid effort”. It follows that policymakers have imposed on the American population their greater preference for guns over butter.

To advance its interests in the fight against global terrorism, the U.S. will need to adjust its allocation of resources in favor of development assistance. There is strong empirical evidence in support of the view that aid promotes economic growth. The evidence also suggests that too little aid is wasted aid, in the sense that it perpetuates aid dependence . U.S. interests would be better served by contributing resources to combat poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality, HIV/AIDS, and environmental degradation in Africa and other developing regions. A “helping hand” builds coalitions against terrorism. In contrast, a “fighting hand” perpetuates alienation vis-à-vis American strategic interests and may eventually facilitate the expansion of global terrorism.

Sources, references, and further readings:

  • Alesina, Alberto and David Dollar (2000) “Who gives foreign aid to whom and why?” Journal of Economic Growth 5(1), 33-64.
  •, “White House prepares for multi-nation presidential tour to Africa
  • Boyce, James K. (2000) “Beyond good intentions: External assistance and peace building,” in Shepard Forman and Stewart Patrick (eds.) Good intentions: Pledges of aid for postconflict recovery, pp. 367-82. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  • Burnside, Creg and David Dollar (2000) “Aid, policies, and growth,” American Economic Review, 90(4), 847-868. A version of this paper is available through the World Bank.
  • Hansen, Henrik and Finn Tarp (2001) “Aid and growth regressions,” Journal of Development Economics, 64, 547-570. A version of this paper is available at
  • Lumsdain, D.H. (1993) Moral Vision in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Maizels, A. and M. Nissanke (1984) “Motivations for aid to developing countries,” World Development, 879-900.
  • Ndikumana, Léonce and James K. Boyce (1998) “Congo’s odious debt: External borrowing and capital flight in Zaire,” Development and Change 29 (2): 195-217.
  • SIPRI (2002) The SIPRI military expenditure database.
  • UNCTAD (2000) Capital Flows and Growth in Africa. Geneva: United Nations.
  • USAID (2002). “FY 2003 Congressional Budget Justification
  • USAID (2002). “U.S. Overseas loans and grants online (Greenbook) 2000
  • World Bank (2002) World Development Indicators 2002.

(c) 2002 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.