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US Foreign Policy: Domestic interests shape aid to Africa: As President prepares to travel to Europe for D-Day ceremony, 'Independent' writers assess his track record

IT IS not only the Somalia fiasco that has dislocated US policy on Africa. Commitments to become more involved in promoting democracy and development, and to provide aid, are being undermined by budget cuts. On 19 November last year, the US Agency for International Development (USAid) announced the closure of nine missions in Africa as part of cost-slashing that involved a 2 per cent cut in aid to Africa.

The announcement by USAid administrator Brian Atwood was accompanied by the brutal statement that the US 'can no longer throw away money on countries that fail to develop . . . sustainable development cannot be pursued in non-performing and non-democratic countries'.

Shortly afterwards the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, George Moose, was forced to reaffirm America's commitment to sustainable development in Africa but added that limits on resources mean they must be used in a flexible, creative and cost-effective manner. 'I assure you (Mr Atwood's statement) does not signal a change in the Administration's commitment to Africa, only in the way we do business'.

Despite strong global commitments by President Clinton in the run-up to his election, the US has not yet developed a new policy for poor countries. Cold War lobbies have been replaced only to a limited extent by commercial or Black American lobbies. Cold War support for leaders such as Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, the Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi and Siad Barre of Somalia has left Africa with a legacy of dictatorships and been replaced in Washington by a vague but constantly repeated commitment to human rights and democracy. The new policy is to support African efforts to establish democratic governments and institutions, and to promote transparent government with a commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights. Washington is also committed to helping to end conflicts and crises, encourage sustainable development and economic growth and increasing the private sector's involvement in Africa.

But simply withdrawing support from dictators - or in the case of Mr Savimbi stopping arms supplies - has not resulted in the dawning of democracy and in some cases, like Angola, has resulted in chaos. Somalia has made Washington wary of further involvement.

South Africa is the new focus for US policy in Africa but Cold War allies such as Zaire and Kenya have been dropped or marginalised. With supply bases at Ascension Island on one side of the continent and Diego Garcia on the other, the US has no vital strategic interests on the continent. The need to secure supplies of strategic minerals, the constant justification for involvement during the Cold War, has declined. The search is for plants with medicinal potential and the US fought for the right in the Gatt negotiations to be able to patent such resources without reference to the country of origin.

American aid to Africa is driven by domestic considerations and business interests - development co-operation is the same department as export promotion and foreign investment risk insurance. According to a recent Action Aid report on aid donors, the US gives the lowest percentage of its GNP in aid and most of it to the Middle East and Eastern Europe for domestic, political or economic reasons. Washington also remains resistant to debt forgiveness and has advocated policies in the Gatt to promote US business interests regardless of the effect on Africa's primary commodity producers.