Obama in Ghana: Pay Attention to Africa

By Ken Hackett

The spotlight that follows the president of the United States shines on Africa as Barack Obama heads for Ghana. When our president departs this West African country for the next stop on his journey, neither the American people nor our government should let the continent drift from their consciousness.

My connection to Ghana goes back over 40 years to a stint in the Peace Corps there. Africa has been a large part of my consciousness ever since. Now, as head of an organization that has been working in that continent for more than a half century -- Catholic Relief Services supports programs in over 30 African countries -- I know the excitement that so many Africans felt when a person whose roots extend into African soil was elected president of the United States. Since then, much of the attention of President Obama has been on the financial crisis. But the message that he should both bring to and take from Africa is that those who had the least to do with causing this crisis should not suffer the most from its consequences. President Obama should still fulfill the promise of candidate Obama by engaging with the people of Africa.

A down payment on that would be keeping his specific promise of doubling foreign aid to $50 billion a year by 2012. U.S. foreign aid is well on its way to reaching its potential as a major force for reducing poverty and disease. Too many times in the past it was used for reasons other than providing help to the poor, giving a hand up to those in need. Instead, in Africa it often bought the loyalty of corrupt governments during the Cold War. But that conflict has been over for two decades and now aid donors -- both governments and private organizations like CRS -- are working hard to insure that aid is effectively spent, not only helping out in dire emergencies, but nurturing good governance, self reliance and economic independence.

Ghana is a case in point. It has had some rocky times since independence in 1957 but just completed its third peaceful transfer of power after free elections. Its economy is growing. It is, like many African countries, becoming an important trading partner in a globalized world. Ghana is clearly on the right track. It is helped along that track by aid done right, such as the five-year $547 million commitment by the Millennium Challenge Corporation designed to turn subsistence farmers into producers of high-value crops, to harness the power of the marketplace to lift them out of poverty. I sit on the board of the MCC which is designed to make aid a potent and effective force, fighting not just poverty, but also corruption and policies that stifle economic growth.

Another example of aid done right is PEPFAR -- the Presidents' Emergency Plan for Aids Relief. Begun by President George W. Bush as a three-year, $15 billion program, PEPFAR has saved tens of thousands of lives and brought hope to Africa that the fight against this pandemic can be won. PEPFAR was renewed a year ago for five years with a $48 billion commitment that will make it even more effective, building up strong health infrastructures while dealing with diseases that often work with AIDS to devastate populations. President Obama needs to make sure that PEPFAR is fully funded.

But as important as these dollar and cents items are, equally important is a sense of commitment to the continent, an affirmation that Africa -- its people, its problems, its hopes and its potential -- matter to the United States. Over the past decade, there has been a reduction in armed conflicts in Africa, but those that remain need the attention of the United States if they are going to be solved. The eastern Congo is still rife with violence that makes women and children particular victims. In Sudan, the tragedy of many displaced in Darfur continues while the peace agreement between north and south needs to be put on a firm foundation. In Zimbabwe, there is hope that a coalition government can bring stability. All of these need the full diplomatic presence of the United States as it will take hard work, not just good intentions, to solve them. Above all, Africa should be taken seriously. It is, as we at CRS know, a place full of millions of wonderful people, energetic, entrepreneurial, innovative and caring. They have certainly had their problems, some of their own making, many imposed by history, by health, by climate. But we know how eager they are to get on with the job of building this continent into the magnificent place it can be. Let's help them accomplish that important task. Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community.

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