On Point

Hope for the Political Football (Better Known as sub-Saharan Africa) of the Left and Right

by Austin Bay

I hope Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent trip to sub-Saharan Africa marks the end of Washington's era of "symbolic politics" in the troubled region.

I hope for a new era of "African realpolitik" that directs aid to developing the human resources, political mechanisms and local infrastructure necessary to sustain long-term economic growth and social stability.

But awareness of sub-Saharan Africa's complex demography and extensive problems tempers hope with a strong dose of plain old doubt.

At the moment, there are approximately 20 million displaced persons in sub-Saharan Africa. At least three-dozen armed conflicts exacerbate the region's economic, environmental, transportation and AIDs-plagued health woes.

An America that values human rights and human life must help Africans address these problems.

Unfortunately, when it comes to sub-Saharan Africa, both the American Left and Right have practiced subtle forms of self-serving, symbolic politics that hinder the development of an American consensus on African assistance.

Consider the Left's record. In the 1980s, battling South Africa's apartheid regime was a just cause -- but a cause that also served domestic political aims. The Reagan administration promoted policies that would end the evil of apartheid but would preserve South Africa's economic capability -- the means of sustaining a healthy South African democracy.

Rabid left-wing activists labeled this approach "inherently racist." Thus, battling apartheid morphed into a domestic political "wedge" issue that spuriously equated the U.S. racial situation with that in South Africa. Perhaps this ugly wedge energized liberal voters, but it arguably slowed development of a U.S. policy consensus that could have accelerated the end of apartheid. Left-wing leaders also dissed the Sullivan Principles, an anti-apartheid code of conduct for business operations in South Africa that combined human rights and economic leverage. Oh, but the symbolic assault on "business interests" appealed to left-wing constituencies. Wisdom failed to prevail.

While the Clinton administration gave sub-Saharan Africa substantial rhetorical attention, it didn't back words with deeds. Clinton's last junket to Africa was a raw exercise in domestic politics, with symbol-rich photo-ops engineered to appeal to African-American voters. The list of African tragedies during Clinton's watch, however, demonstrates the ultimate superficiality of his approach. Start with the Rwandan genocide, go to the Great Congo War, visit Zimbabwe's slide into authoritarian anarchy.

The American Right has also placed symbol over substance. During the Cold War, "symbolic anti-Communism" mouthed by corrupt African elites was enough to gain at least qualified conservative support. Conservative advocacy of Third World economic liberalization was all too often lip service, not policy.

Though Washington must help resolve Sudan's terrible civil war, Sudan has the makings of a conservative symbol-rich "cause celebre," with black African Christians the victims of slaving Muslims. South Sudan's black African Christians are victims, but casting the war in religious terms doesn't address Sudan's complex situation. Like South Africa, the policy keys to Sudan are political and economic. But some conservatives appear close to advocating a "military solution" in Sudan -- an echo of the 1980s leftists who demanded the violent overthrow of apartheid.

So what's the cause for hope?

Finally, Americans across the political spectrum are starting to identify the same set of problems. Powell advocates promoting democracy, increasing trade links, fighting AIDS and ending regional conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. At the rhetorical level, this is very much in line with the Clinton administration's stated (though unfulfilled) goals. The Bush administration now has the responsibility for action.

However, a more subtle, less grandiose, though potentially powerful means of affecting long-term change in sub-Saharan Africa is also receiving attention from religious and secular relief organizations.

Internal corruption continues to damage and destroy development projects throughout the region. At one time, the conservatives fingered governments as the corrupt culprits, liberals the banks and businesses. Sadly, the kleptocracies that beggar Africa rely on what is systemic corruption, with government, banks and business all infected. Liberal and conservative activists now share a common enemy.

New approaches, many in the formative stage, focus on direct aid that circumvents corrupt systems. These "micro" approaches recognize the need to build "human capital" through education. The Grameen Bank is one successful example, where economically creative individuals and communities receive low-cost loans and direct, personalized assistance. Grameen also emphasizes personal accountability and integrity.

The Internet and new communications technologies make such "local to local" aid increasingly practical. The changes may be slow and small, but they mark victories of verifiable substance, not the false hope of symbolic gesture.

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