When President Bush traveled to sub-Sahara Africa in February he was greeted by large and tumultuous crowds of admirers—which mystified many of his critics, who believe that the animosity toward his administration abroad is universal. But polling data from the Pew Foundation shows something different: Approval ratings for the United States exceed 80 percent in many African countries, some with large Muslim populations. In Darfur, many families name their newborn sons George Bush.
What is it that the Bush administration did differently in Africa than it did elsewhere?
Certainly one factor is that Africa is not the Middle East or central Asia where America is fighting two unpopular wars and where polls show America at an all-time low in public esteem. In Sudan, the United States played a central role as peacemaker in ending a 20-year civil war between the Arab north and African south, which killed 2 million people.
It was the Bush administration that first raised the alarm about the atrocities in Darfur, organized a massive humanitarian relief effort to save people in the displaced camps, and rallied an international coalition to send peacekeeping troops to restore order through the United Nations and the African Union.
While the civil war continues, casualties have declined and people are being fed by aid agencies, thanks to US government generosity, which may explain why Bush is so popular among the Africans in the camps. America has played an important role as mediator in Burundi, Liberia, Northern Uganda, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo after civil wars devastated all five countries. Administration policy in Africa has not been without its failures: its military campaign in Somalia has been an embarrassment, putting vulnerable people at risk.
However important these diplomatic efforts may be, Bush’s enduring legacy in Africa rests on humanitarian and economic, not political, foundations. More than anything else it has been the revolution in the US government’s development assistance that is responsible for Bush’s popularity.
The Bush administration doubled foreign aid worldwide over the past eight years, the largest increase since the Truman administration, and used it to encourage poor countries to undertake political and economic reform. Total US government development aid to Africa alone has quadrupled from $1.3 billion in 2001 to more than $5 billion in 2008, and is scheduled to go to $8.7 billion in 2010, principally for education (primary school enrollment in Africa is up 36 percent since 1999), healthcare, building civil society, and protecting fragile environments.
Africa has received $3.5 billion in additional funds from Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation initiative, which rewards poor countries that encourage economic growth, govern well, and provide social services for their people. The president’s HIV/AIDS program, principally focused on providing Africans with anti-retroviral drugs to treat the disease (1.7 million people are on the therapy), has been such a success that the program has been extended to 2015 at $48 billion. His five-year, $1.2 billion effort to combat malaria has provided 4 million insecticide-treated bed nets and 7 million drug therapies to vulnerable people.
The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, approved in 2000 and reauthorized in expanded form in 2004, provides trade benefits with the United States for 40 African countries that have implemented reforms to encourage economic growth. Since 2001, US exports to Africa have more than doubled to $14 billion a year, while African exports to the United States more than tripled to $67 billion, of which $3.4 billion has been in goods other than oil. USAID has provided more than $500 million in trade capacity building for poor countries to access international markets, which is the only way Africa will escape the poverty that has for too long oppressed the continent.
While Bush’s critics have given him little credit for his African initiatives, they will be among his most enduring legacies in a region of the world neglected by policymakers from both parties for too long. Africans will long remember what Bush’ critics have ignored.