President Obama’s decision to tap top White House aide Gayle Smith to take over the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has drawn plaudits, but also serious concerns from some long-time Africa watchers about the role of American assistance in abetting repression on the continent.
The New York Times described Smith as “a longtime development and Africa specialist in the Clinton and Obama administrations.” Rock star Bono called her “a force of nature” with a lifelong service to helping the poor. If confirmed by the Senate, Smith will oversee the disbursement of millions of dollars of American assistance around the world. Her experience working as an aid worker and journalist in northern Ethiopia during the famine and war that devastated the region in the 1980s will serve her in this role.
However, many American assistance programs in Africa operate in countries devoid of the rule of law and viable institutions of accountability. This is a reflection of a long-standing Washington establishment mantra of sacrificing democracy for autocratic stability. Critics of Smith accuse her of complacency with this mantra by disregarding democracy in the development agenda and for being a major architect of policies that abetted repression.
The most outspoken critic of Smith has been Howard French, a veteran journalist and author, who reported from Africa for several years. In a series of tweets, French called Smith “a disasterbacle in Africa policy,” adding that “she’s often fought for wrong things, esp [sic] authoritarianism.” He also castigated Smith as representative of a Washington establishment that he accuses of “near complete intellectual bankruptcy” on Africa since the days of Bill Clinton. In a 2004, televised public debate with French, Smith denied coddling dictators and said the US government lacked adequate leverage to push for democracy in Africa.
Economist William Easterly said Smith’s nomination reflects the prevalent idea in Washington “that what’s good for development is good for national security, and what’s good for national security is good for development.” According to him, “giving development aid to an autocrat because he is a valuable ally on the war on terror is NOT [sic] good for development, it is the opposite of development.” Easterly also said he finds Smith’s “longstanding and excessively friendly relationship” with Ethiopia’s late US-backed autocrat, Meles Zenawi, problematic.
Echoing such concerns, Ghanaian economist George Ayittey said that her appointment would “rankle democracy activists in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” citing her close relationship with the leaders of these countries since their rebel days. “Upon assuming power, [they] turned out to be crocodile liberators and crackpot democrats – even though, former Pres. Bill Clinton praised them as the ‘new leaders of Africa.’
Controversial aid dollars
Coincidentally, the announcement of Smith’s nomination came on the same day the Washington Post editorial board called on the Obama administration to “stop funneling millions of aid dollars to a regime that has continued to choke off the media, hamper the participation of opposition parties and silence its critics.”
The controversy around Smith lays bare age-old tensions between America’s principles and realpolitik interests.The American government has forcefully withheld assistance from autocratic regimes it is hostile to (i.e. Zimbabwe and Sudan), but less willing to confront US-friendly authoritarians, for example in Rwanda, Uganda, The Gambia, DRC, or Equatorial Guinea. The idea of recalibrating US approach in favor of more forceful and principled support for democracy in countries such as those faces many obstacles, from political will to the pressure to compete with China’s influence in the region, to the potential chilling effect of an embarrassing scandal over USAID’s ill-fated scheme to stir up an uprising in Cuba.
One thing is clear: Smith’s nomination has offered an opportunity for reexamination of the administration’s relationship with friendly autocratic regimes in Africa since Obama declared in 2009 that “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”