February 11, 2003

February 11, 2003 | Commentary on Africa

Trading darkness for light

Africa used to be known as "the dark continent" because so little was known about it. Increased knowledge (and political correctness) has dated that description, but one can argue that the situation the African continent finds itself in today is dark indeed.

Sub-Saharan Africa is stricken with pervasive poverty. In 2000, on average, each person in sub-Saharan Africa made only $568-many less than a dollar a day, according to the World Bank. For this "average" person to become as wealthy as an American (whose income averaged $31,996 in 2000), their economies would have to grow about 5 percent a year-for the next 80 years.

Then there's disease. As President Bush noted in his State of the Union address, nearly 30 million Africans have AIDS, including three million children under the age of 15. The United States should offer help to prevent the spread of this disease, Bush said, because "seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many."

He's right. But Africa's poverty should be just as big a foreign policy concern as the spread of AIDS. The administration recognizes this: A September 2002 Bush administration national security study said that in Africa, "promise and opportunity sit side by side with disease, war and desperate poverty." It went on to note that this situation "threatens both a core values of the United States-preserving human dignity-and our strategic priority-combating global terror."

Economic repression creates poverty and resentment that terrorists can exploit. Case in point: Five of the seven countries the State Department identifies as state sponsors of terrorism-Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria-were rated among the world's least free economies in the 2003 "Index of Economic Freedom," an annual survey The Heritage Foundation publishes with The Wall Street Journal.

But poverty isn't a matter of fate. It's largely imposed through ill-conceived and repressive economic policies. A major step toward alleviating poverty is to provide greater economic freedom and strengthen the rule of law. Most economic analyses conclude that these policies are the only way to create the opportunities that lead to greater wealth.

And, as noted in The Heritage Foundation's latest policy guidebook, "Agenda 2003," (agenda.heritage.org), America's strategy in Africa should focus on two priorities: expanding economic freedom and strengthening the continent's ability to address political instability. Congress can help the administration address these priorities in several ways:

  • Pass a free-trade agreement with the Southern African Customs Union. Union-member countries (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland) are among the freest in Africa and are well positioned to reap the benefits of free trade with the United States. 
  • Authorize the president to negotiate a free-trade and investment agreement with sub-Saharan Africa. Congress and President Bush should cooperate to expand the successful trade preferences started under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This would benefit African entrepreneurs, promote growth and development, and increase America's access to the region's vast oil and gas resources. 
  • Support free trade through the World Trade Organization (WTO), including the elimination of agricultural barriers. One of Africa's greatest assets is its ability to produce agricultural products cheaply. However, this advantage is greatly diminished by the huge subsidies that Europe and the United States give their own farmers. In future WTO negotiations, America should follow the ambitious agenda set forth by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. In particular, it should back his efforts to end agriculture subsidies and eliminate barriers to genetically modified foods that serve as a barrier to free trade. (Some African countries, despite having millions of starving citizens, have refused U.S. grain that has been modified through technology because they're afraid that the European Union would refuse their imports as an act of protest.)
  • Support the president's vision for the Millennium Challenge Account. This program would reward countries that increase economic freedom, strengthen the rule of law and promote industry and their people-policies that are key to increasing prosperity.

The problem of AIDS is dire and the president is correct to rally America's resources to address the problem. But Africa's poverty kills as surely as AIDS. A lack of economic freedom and rule of law contribute to the big, bleak picture of current African life. Economic freedom and trade will help improve that picture and create an African continent that lives in the light of liberty, peace and prosperity and not in the dark of slavery, war and poverty.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom