President Obama's first speech in sub-Saharan Africa hit on many of the key themes Oxfam believes are essential for a prosperous and just future for the continent. Africa, where millions are already suffering in poverty, may lose as much as $245 billion in the current economic slump this year. This is almost seven times the amount the continent receives in development aid.
"President Obama's historic visit to Ghana, so early in his presidency and on the heels of important commitments at the G8 in Italy, signals the importance of African development to US interests," said Raymond Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America. "President Obama gets it. He understands that without a strong civil society, and capable, transparent governance, efforts to fight poverty and bring about social justice in Africa will at best be incremental. Good governance and sustainable use of resources will inspire more effective international assistance and increase trade."
President Obama had several recommendations that will help Africa on the road to prosperity. Here are a few of the highlights from the speech:
"In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success—strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people's everyday lives." These are all important parts of a thriving democracy, and President Obama made clear in his speech that these should be a priority in Africa just as they should be on every other continent. Building strong institutions that protect the rights of citizens, and allow business and entrepreneurs to flourish, will encourage investment in Africa. Oxfam is focused on helping civil society organizations work to hold their governments accountable. Examples include our partnerships with groups promoting new laws that accord equal rights to women and girls in southern Africa, and a region-wide proposal for uniform laws governing the mining industry in West Africa.
Good use of resources
"So in Ghana, for instance, oil brings great opportunities, and you have been very responsible in preparing for new revenue. But as so many Ghanaians know, oil cannot simply become the new cocoa... Dependence on commodities—or a single export—has a tendency to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and leaves people too vulnerable to downturns." Resources like gold, diamonds, and oil can bring enormous wealth and potential for development. The road to prosperity will require leaders to avoid the path of poor management, corruption, violence and war. Ghana is a promising example of what is possible: Since Ghana discovered oil near its coast, the country's President John Atta Mills pledged earlier this year to disclose all petroleum agreements, so citizens can track what money comes to the government and how revenues are spent. This pledge has not yet been turned into reality. Real transparency needs to be built into a new legislative framework for how Ghana's new oil wealth will be managed, to ensure revenues are spent on social services and poverty reduction. Oxfam is working with the US Congress on legislation to require all US and foreign companies subject to Securities and Exchange Commission rules to disclose payments to developing country governments. This will be a critically important tool for citizens working to avoid corruption and waste of natural resource revenues.
President Obama also highlighted steps that the US would take to help combat corruption, including addressing corruption in the annual State Department human rights report, a recommendation that was made by Oxfam America in its Presidential transition memos.
Better foreign aid
"Aid is not an end in itself. The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it's no longer needed." The United States needs to make a number of key reforms to make our foreign aid system as effective as possible in reducing poverty and creating prosperous communities throughout the developing world. The US lacks a coherent strategy for global development. Oxfam is calling on the US to keep recipient country governments and their public informed on the nature and amount of American aid, and let each recipient country lead its own development agenda. President Obama's focus on using aid to defeat poverty is on the right track—one that we hope will lead to a new strategy for global development and a reinvigorated, effective aid system that will also rebuild US leadership in the world.
Addressing climate change
"A warming planet will spread disease, shrink water resources, and deplete crops, creating conditions that produce more famine and more conflict." Climate change is already affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor people in Africa, as a recent Oxfam report detailed. Tackling these impacts is essential to addressing food security and broader development objectives. President Obama must commit to help bring about a comprehensive global climate strategy that will help poor communities cope with failed crops, dwindling reserves of clean water, and displacement caused by extreme weather events. The US and other wealthier countries must curb their greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate chaos and provide adequate financial assistance to help African countries adapt in greener and more sustainable ways.
Making trade fair
"Now, America can also do more to promote trade and investment." The economic welfare of Americans is inextricably linked with the well-being of people across the globe. While our foreign policy seeks to address the problems of poverty, disease and lack of economic opportunity, our trade policy has often exacerbated them, by demanding greater access to export markets in the poor countries, more favorable rules for US investors that can lead to greater poverty and inequality, and limiting access to affordable medicines. President Obama must develop a new trade policy with economic development as a core objective, spreading the benefits of trade as widely as possible, in the developing world as well as in the United States. This must include focusing efforts on the multilateral trading system to achieve a successful conclusion of the Doha Development Round, while working with Congress to pass legislation providing for duty-free and quota-free market access for all Least Developed Countries (LDCs).