The Trump Administration’s budget proposal for next year includes drastic cuts to a myriad of social services and programs, to environmental protection, education, public housing, and the arts and science. But there is something else buried under all of those line items: a call to completely eliminate the African Development Foundation, a government agency that gives grants worth thousands of dollars, in the form of seed capital and technical support, to community enterprises and small businesses on the African continent.
The A.D.F. functions as a kind of alternative to the aid money that the United States regularly provides to several governments in Africa; it was designed to encourage self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship, and it focusses on ventures by farmers, women, and young people, particularly those in post-conflict communities. Last year, it invested just more than fifty million dollars in five hundred active businesses, including agriculture co-operatives and solar-energy enterprises, which in turn reportedly generated new economic activity worth eighty million dollars. (The agency’s Twitter account has been valiantly tweeting out the results of its work in recent days.)
The A.D.F.’s reach has been meaningful, though modest. But its proposed termination reflects a deeper apathy, and even belligerence, about Africa from President Trump’s Administration, whose members have publicly wondered what the United States is doing on the continent, and why it is interested in parts of it at all.
So far, the Trump Administration’s prevailing mood toward much of the world, including Africa, has been one of xenophobia and carelessness. Three of the six Muslim-majority countries named in Trump’s executive order barring people from the United States—Somalia, Sudan, and Libya—are in Africa. (The order is on hold pending court challenges.) The Administration is also expected to soon change the parameters of U.S. military operations in Somalia, by removing constraints on special-operations airstrikes and other actions directed at the terrorist group al-Shabaab—rules that were put in place to limit civilian deaths.
The University of Southern California hosts an annual summit on trade in Africa, meant to bring together representatives of business and government interests on the continent and in the United States. This year, there were no Africans present, because the State Department did not grant visas to any of the roughly sixty African delegates who were invited. The head of the African Union has criticized the travel ban, saying, “The very country to which many of our people were taken as slaves during the transatlantic slave trade has now decided to ban refugees from some of our countries.” Otherwise, African leaders have mostly refrained from offering public appraisals of the current President. Perhaps they consider it wiser to stay out of the spotlight as Trump goes on tirades against foes like Mexico and China.
But if questions posed earlier this year by the Trump transition team to the State Department regarding Africa are any indication, ignorance may be just as harmful as blustery tweets and threats at post-election rallies, if not more so. As the Times, which got a copy of the questions, summed it up, the incoming President’s team wondered why the United States was “even bothering to fight the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria,” and why it hadn’t yet defeated al-Shabaab. It asked about doing away with assistance for Uganda’s hunt of the vicious, Joseph Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army, which is still rampaging through central Africa, since the “LRA has never attacked U.S. interests.”
It also asked if the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a program started by former President George W. Bush which helps fight H.I.V./AIDS and tuberculosis on the continent, was a “massive, international entitlement program”—welfare for Africans, in other words. The questions revealed a stunning lack of knowledge about the humanitarian impulses behind the most important operations and programs on the continent, including the most successful, like PEPFAR, and the longest running, such as the hunt to capture Kony. There were legitimate points of inquiry, such as whether the aid given to some African countries disappears into corrupt pockets—a question that could, in theory, lead to a serious discussion about whether it is more efficient to focus on investment than on assistance. But there was no sign that this Administration will capitalize on that insight. The tone of the questions, judging from press reports, appears to have been overwhelmingly confrontational and dismissive, and even flippant.
The United States has slowly become more and more irrelevant to Africa’s economic progress. Besides foreign aid, America’s main concern in the region has been bolstering its war on Al Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated militant groups. Meanwhile, its competitors, mainly China, have seized enormously profitable investment opportunities throughout the continent, and maintained beneficial relationships with African governments. Often enough, those ties involve China looking the other way when it comes to human-rights concerns, while making aggressive, ethically nebulous deals. “How does U.S. business compete with other nations in Africa?” the transition team asked. “Are we losing out to the Chinese?” The answer to the second question is a resounding yes. Based on the queries about China, observers have speculated that the Trump Administration may also look toward investing in Africa. But retooling America’s approach to the continent requires not only business savvy but also the foresight to recognize that Africa is not simply a destination for constant aid—and never really has been.