Credit Where It’s Due

On Tuesday, in the midst of his overseas trip, President Obama gave an interview to an African news outlet called Allafrica.com. I don’t think it got much attention, but I read the transcript via Congressional Quarterly. It struck me as the most sensible sustained exchange I’ve seen from Obama since his inauguration. Reading Obama’s words when, for once, he was saying things I agree with conveyed some sense of why many people find him articulate and effective. So, here goes.

Why Obama has planned a trip to Ghana:

Well, part of it is lifting up successful models. And so, by traveling to Ghana, we hope to highlight the effective governance that they have in place.

I don’t think that we can expect that every country is going to undergo these transitions in the same way at the same time. But we have seen progress in democracy and transparency and rule of law, in the protection of property rights, in anti-corruption efforts. …

I think that the new President, President Mills, has shown himself committed to the rule of law, to the kinds of democratic commitments that ensure stability in a country. And I think that there is a direct correlation between governance and prosperity. Countries that are governed well, that are stable, where the leadership recognizes that they are accountable to the people and that institutions are stronger than any one person have a track record of producing results for the people. And we want to highlight that.

Economic development in Africa:

Now, I also think on the ground in many of these countries, how we think about not high-tech stuff but low-tech technologies to, for example, improve food production is vitally important. And I’m still frustrated over the fact that the green revolution that we introduced into India in the ’60s, we haven’t yet introduced into Africa in 2009. In some countries, you’ve got declining agricultural productivity. That makes absolutely no sense. And we don’t need fancy computers to solve those problems; we need tried and true agricultural methods and technologies that are cheap and are efficient, but could have a huge impact in terms of people’s day-to-day well-being. …

Number one, you’re not going to get investment without good governance. So that’s part of the reason why we emphasize it. Again, this is a very practical, hard-headed approach to how we’re going to see improvements in the daily lives of the peoples of Africa. If government officials are asking for 10, 15, 25 percent off the top, businesses don’t want to invest there. That’s point number one.

Point number two, I think that when my father left Kenya and traveled to the United States back in the early ’60s, the GDP of Kenya and South Korea weren’t equivalent — Kenya’s was actually higher. What’s happened over that 50-year period? What you’ve seen is Korea combine foreign investment, integration with the global economy, with a strategic sense of certain industries that they can promote for export; great emphasis on education for a skilled workforce; insisting that foreign investment is accompanied by technology transferring so that homegrown industries can be built and nurtured.

So we’ve got models out there.

And I like this exchange, about why much of Africa continues to be so backward:

QUESTION: Is that a failure of U.S. policy or is that a failure of governance in Africa?

OBAMA: I would say that the international community has not always been as strategic as it should have been, but ultimately I’m a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa.

I think part of what’s hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we’ve made excuses about corruption or poor governance; that this was somehow the consequence of neo-colonialism, or the West has been oppressive, or racism — I’m not a big — I’m not a believer in excuses.

I’d say I’m probably as knowledgeable about African history as anybody who’s occupied my office. And I can give you chapter and verse on why the colonial maps that were drawn helped to spur on conflict, and the terms of trade that were uneven emerging out of colonialism. And yet the fact is we’re in 2009. The West and the United States has not been responsible for what’s happened to Zimbabwe’s economy over the last 15 or 20 years. It hasn’t been responsible for some of the disastrous policies that we’ve seen elsewhere in Africa. And I think that it’s very important for African leadership to take responsibility and be held accountable.

And I think the people of Africa understand that. The problem is, is that they just haven’t always had the opportunities to organize and voice their opinions in ways that create better results.

One could quibble. It would have been nice for Obama to acknowledge the strong Africa policies of his predecessor, but giving credit to others is not the Obama way. And one would certainly like to hear Obama talk about property rights and the rule of law in the context of the U.S. as well as Africa. But let’s not dilute our praise: those are sensible comments that many in Africa will probably hear, and some may take to heart. Well done, President Obama.

PAUL adds: Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the one part of the world as to which President Obama has the right line is the part of the world he probably knows the most about.

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