[This commentary first appeared on The Hill.]
President Obama visited Ghana in 2009 and told Parliament, “History is on the side of brave Africans.” He warned Africa’s strongmen, “History is not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power.” He declared to the world, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Obama has tapped Gayle Smith to run the U.S. Agency for International Development. African strongmen will be very pleased by the news; but she is the wrong choice for the job.
Smith’s history in Africa shows that she has been on the wrong side of history, on the side of Africa’s strongmen. She supported the late Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi for decades. Zenawi left a legacy of repression and persecution. Ethiopia today is ranked “the 4th most censored country in the world.”
Just a few days ago, Smith, along with Susan Rice, met Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni at the Waldorf Astoria. Museveni has been in power since 1986. Last year, Human Rights Watch reported, “Museveni’s government increasingly suppresses freedom of assembly, expression, and association while escalating threats to civil society.”
Smith’s outlook on Africa and its relationship to America is disturbing. Smith believes “aid promotes development.” Smith promotes a welfare foreign policy of aid handouts and alms-giving to Africa generously supported by American taxpayers. In 2014, USAID spent over $5 billion in Africa on various health and development programs.
No African country has developed hooked to the life-support system of U.S. aid. Dambissa Moyo has convincingly argued that the “insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment.”
What the USAID needs today is a steady hand on the tiller. USAID development programs have been plagued by allegations of fraud, waste, abuse and corruption. A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that a significant amount of the nearly $10 billion spent by the U.S. in Africa between 2002 and 2012 on various health projects, including malaria and HIV control, “has been partly hijacked by organized networks that steal large quantities of donated malaria drugs and ship them from East to West Africa, where they end up for sale at street markets.”
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in 2013 found that USAID’s lack of effective oversight and monitoring placed hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars “at risk of waste, fraud and abuse.”
Another report by the Inspector General in 2010 concluded that “because of weaknesses in the mission’s performance management and reporting system,” auditors “could not determine whether the results reported in USAID/Ethiopia’s performance plan and report were valid.”
USAID does not need a polarizing figure at the helm. It needs a strong consensus builder with the proven ability to resolve serious internal administrative issues. It also needs a visionary leader who could envision Africa holding a plough and sickle, not a stretched out arm holding a begging bowl for American aid. USAID needs a leader who can clean house, not sweep the dirt under the rug; it does not need an administrator of welfare programs for African strongmen.
In July and September of this year, heads of state and ministers will meet to map out financial plans to implement their global development programs. Smith’s record suggests that her contribution to that effort will be a dogmatic reaffirmation of the dubious principle that development and U.S. national security are synonymous.
Smith will oversee the administration of billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Africa if confirmed. Her long and chummy relationship with Africa’s strongmen will make her a weak advocate of human rights, the rule of law and good governance on the continent.
In Accra, Obama told Africans, “You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people. Because in this moment, history is on the move.”
The people of Africa cannot hold their leaders accountable when Africa’s strongmen rule from thrones cushioned with billions of U.S. aid dollars.
Obama is requesting the Senate’s advice and consent. The Senate should withhold consent and advise the president to send a nominee who is on the right side of history, the rule of law and democracy. For Africa, Senate confirmation of Smith at this moment will be the equivalent of moving the clock of history backwards.