According to the latest polling data from Gallup, released this week through the Brookings Institution, President Barack Obama enjoys an unprecedented level of support in sub-Saharan Africa. In nearly every country where the polling took place, Obama was viewed positively. The sole exception was Djibouti (the only African country where U.S troops are based, lending credence to the notion that Americans are easily cast, fairly or not, as occupiers). Obama and his team are flying high—a feeling of good tidings that, during her trip to the continent this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is about to waste.
President George W. Bush's administration, for all its flaws, truly brought to change to Africa through its PEPFAR program, which injected billions of dollars of money into nearly every aspect of the fight against HIV/AIDS, from prevention to critical antiretroviral (ARV) treatment programs. Outside of the war on terrorism, Bush made it the centerpiece of his foreign policy, and it animated a great deal of time and attention from the executive branch. Projects like PEPFAR take years to show results and a steady influx of billions to maintain. But they pay off. Last month, South Africa began clinical trials in the first-ever AIDS vaccine on the continent. That never would have been possible without PEPFAR. Admittedly, it's early, but for now it's clear that Bush was better than Obama for Africa.
What has Obama offered? So far, not much. It's true that never before have a president and secretary of state have visited the continent so early in the first term. And Obama's Africa team has only been online for two months. But Obama used the occasion of his speech in Accra, Ghana, last month to convey that what Africa needs most is to take care of its own house—stomping out corruption, attracting foreign investment, and respecting democracy and human rights. Clinton's own seven-nation tour is meant to drive home the message that America will support and nurture those African countries that, in a stable and self-sustaining fashion, are doing their part to entrench democracy from the inside out.
Nothing wrong with that. But those are messages that African leaders have heard again and again. (Bill Clinton, for instance, called for "renewed" U.S. engagement in Africa, but his administration was on watch for the Rwandan genocide, the diamond wars in West Africa, and the total collapse of Somalia.) Conspicuously missing, at least so far, are the kinds of bold initiatives that defined Obama's campaign, or the decisive steps he has taken elsewhere in the world, such as disarmament with Russia and possible talks with Iran. Without them, the Bush administration, famous for its inwardness and stinginess with development aid will have proved much more ambitious than Obama's.
Even Obama's promise to continue PEPFAR is not particularly daring. Some scientists and HIV researchers say more—and more of something different—is what's really required. "New leaders want new issues, and that's a tragedy for parts of Africa," says Alan Whiteside, director of the HIV research division at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban. "If Obama wants to do something innovative, he needs to have some strategic thinking around HIV/AIDS, and at the moment he's not headed in that direction." (Great as PEPFAR is, it's not enough: for every two South Africans receiving treatment, five more are infected; 18 percent of Swaziland is HIV positive. In America, that would mean 57 million cases of HIV. The epidemic is growing, not shrinking, so the defense against it has to keep pace.)
But HIV isn't the only issue where Obama could make a mark in Africa. Whiteside argues that Africa is ground zero for some of the world's most critical "long wave" problems. He says the world's top three long-wave events—global trends that will affect humanity as a whole—are going to be most acutely felt in Africa: global climate change, population growth and movement, and new and emerging diseases. These are areas that cry for either multilateral or hugely expensive approaches, and they are where Obama could make his mark.
Several recent studies have shown that Africa will be the region hit hardest by global climate change, as flooding displaces already fragile communities and herds populations into unstable urban centers.
And Africa is unique, as far as continents go, in that population growth regularly soars far beyond GDP growth, meaning that a decreasing percentage of inhabitants will be able to make a living wage. The region is so fragile from a population standpoint already that a recent World Bank study found that the global economic downturn will cast another 53 million Africans into abject poverty, joining the hundreds of millions already there. Nowhere else on the planet is so volatile.
The third long-wave event, new and emerging diseases, is already being felt in places like South Africa, where extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis stands poised to ravage the HIV-positive population, and where swine flu could wreak havoc if it spreads to poverty-stricken areas. What happens today in Africa could be a template for problems the rest of the world will face down the road. "These things won't affect Obama or you or me," says Whiteside, "But they will affect our children."
Make no mistake, the issues that Clinton has chosen to highlight in Africa are serious and important ones: terrorism and piracy in Somalia, democracy in Zimbabwe, corruption and good governance in Nigeria, long-term stability in Kenya. And Obama will no doubt pour resources and energy into tackling them. But that doesn't do justice to the hundreds of millions of Africans who believe in him and see him as one of their own. He could do a lot more—something inspirational. Obama needs what Bush liked to call a game-changer.