Will Obama Give Africa More Than Just Pride?

Despite his Kenyan roots, Obama could be diverted by more pressing problems.

January 22, 2009, 7:47 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan. 23, 2009 — -- Africans across the continent are beaming with pride because a man they consider "one of their own" is now the president of the United States.

Like many people around the world, they have high expectations for an Obama presidency, but a look beyond Obama's Kenyan roots prompts the question: What will an Obama presidency mean for Africa?

African experts say the answer is complicated. While Obama has pledged to pay attention to Africa and its problems, his first priority will be the myriad problems he's facing at home.

"The real question is: What will be the foreign aid budget under President Obama?" said Sebastian Spio-Gabrah, an analyst focusing on sub-Saharan Africa for the Eurasia policy group.

"Clearly, when your own country is falling apart economically ... this is not the time when Congress is going to say, 'Let's send more money to African countries.'"

Aid remains one of the largest elements of most sub-Saharan African economies. Even a country like Ghana, politically stable with strong economic growth, is dependent on foreign aid, which makes up nearly 30 percent of its budget.

Africa was a priority under former President Bush. His administration directed more money to the continent than any before it, with the United States allocating more than $5 billion a year in aid by the end of Bush's second term.

AIDS and HIV, in particular, were given special prominence with the establishment of PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

"The Bush administration deserves a lot of credit for keeping Africa front and center," said Philip de Pontet of the Eurasia group.

Obama has pledged to continue with PEPFAR and put his own stamp on the program by increasing the budget and reviewing Bush's emphasis on giving money to local programs that stress abstinence-only prevention.

Most African experts believe that Obama's approach toward Africa will be similar to that taken with PEPFAR, with no drastic changes in policy -- but rather, tweaks that will make the U.S. policy toward Africa the Obama administration's own.

Africans themselves are ecstatic about Obama's election. Because his father was from Kenya, they see him as an African and believe that, like any good African son, he won't forget his roots.

One Kenyan told ABC News he is sure Obama will expand on the attention Bush paid to Africa.

"My expectation for Obama as president is that he'll proceed to provide this nation with ARV [anti-retroviral] drugs to Africans and war-torn countries."

Obama Focus on Agriculture

De Pontet predicts Obama's overall Africa policy will have more of a focus on agriculture than Bush's. Last year's food crisis and looming famines in countries, such as Kenya, showed that food insecurity remains one of Africa's most pressing problems.

"I see some shifting to agricultural policies," de Pontet said. "[It's] great to throw food aid at Ethiopia every year, but it's not sustainable."

Jeffrey Sachs, who heads the Millennium Villages Project out of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is calling on the Obama administration to start giving aid to small farmers and subsidize fertilizer to help modernize farming in Africa.

More than 80 percent of Africa's population lives in rural agricultural communities. Drought and poor farming practices have contributed to the hunger problems plaguing the continent.

"Obama has a responsibility to accomplish a great deal," said Sachs in Nairobi the day before Obama's inauguration, "not because of his African heritage, but because the U.S. has not been fulfilling its responsibilities in this part of the world."

African leaders, such as Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, have said they believe an Obama presidency will be friendlier to African countries regarding aid and trade policies than the previous administration.

But with the U.S. economy in near-collapse, two wars in play, and tensions in both the Middle East and Southeast Asia at a boiling point, Spio-Gabrah predicts that, for at least the first year of Obama's term, Africa may actually fare less well than it did under Bush.

"You're likely to see some flat-lining of Bush's budget because Obama will be constrained by economic problems at home," Spio-Gabrah said. "The expectations of Africans of what Obama will mean to them is higher than what he can deliver."

Obama Inspires 'Yes We Can' Attitude

Nevertheless, many Africans say Obama's election alone has more than met their expectations and inspired hope.

In Kogelo, Kenya, the small village in Western Kenya where Obama's father hails from, a school was renamed the Senator Obama Kogelo Secondary School after Obama was elected to the Senate in 2006, and it is now in the process of being renamed to reflect Obama's presidential status.

Collins Ochieng, a senior at the school, said when he graduates this year he hopes to go on to college and eventually become a lawyer. Despite being poor and without the resources most Western schools enjoy, Ochieng looks to Obama's success for inspiration.

"His example teaches us that we shouldn't feel that we cannot do," said Ochieng. "He was advocating to us that, 'Yes, we can,' and now I also think I can make it."

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