“You’ll think I’m off my trolley when I say this, but the Bush administration is the most radical – in a positive sense – in its approach to Africa since Kennedy…” – Musician/activist Bob Geldof, to the Guardian newspaper.
President Bush’s $15 billion aid package to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean seems to be winning fans from the unlikeliest places. It’s won him praise from unfriendly editorial pages and European leaders, and it passed the U.S. Senate by voice vote, and the U.S. House by a 9-1 margin. The bill’s supporters in Congress and the White House can’t help but pat themselves on the back for this gift to the developing world.
Pardon my lack of enthusiasm.
It was only last year that this same president – and many of those same senators and representatives – passed a gluttonous $246 billion farm subsidies bill, legislation that’s loaded with political patronage, and that will wreak far more devastation on the African continent than this AIDS legislation could ever hope to make better.
The AIDS bill President Bush signed this week will cost each American about 53 cents, less than a third of what Sally Struthers asks each month to sponsor an impoverished kid in the developing world. It’s stocked with religious-right appeasing action items like abstinence education, and it (rightly) overlooks countries like Zimbabwe and Angola, where aid money is likely to be intercepted and looted by rogue revolutionaries, thuggish dictators, or both. Unfortunately, those also happen to be some of the areas of Africa in most need of assistance.
But the AIDS bill looks good on television. It wins support from people like Bono and Bob Geldof. It gives Republicans an issue with which they can reach out to blacks – or at least to whites who want to think Republicans reach out to blacks. Most importantly, it sends the message to the rest of the world that, yes, we really do care.
But it isn’t courageous. Asking every American for 53 cents to help fight pictures of AIDS babies isn’t bold. It’s easy.
Bold would be standing up to the politically savvy cotton industry, for example, and saying “no” to the $3.4 billion subsidy it got from the 2002 Farm Bill. The average cotton farmer in the United States is worth $800,000. He can get up to half of his annual income from government subsidies. And thanks to the 2002 Farm Bill, he can expect to earn about 16% more in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, in impoverished Mali – where cotton is pretty much the only export – U.S. and European subsidies will drain an additional 10% from what little income Malian cotton farmers managed to bring in last year. Economists estimate that U.S. cotton subsidies take a quarter of a billion dollars from African farmers every year.
And that’s just cotton.
Thanks to subsidies, American corn sells on the international market at just 80% of the cost of production. Wheat sells at just 54%. There’s simply no way African farmers can compete with behemoth western corporate farms that, while feeding at the public trough, sell grain on the world market at a fraction of what it costs them to actually grow it.
The United Nations estimates that American and European agricultural subsidies cost African farmers $50 billion annually. That’s three-and-one-third “let’s fight AIDS in Africa” bills, every year.
Guilt-ridden politicians and diplomats then compound the problem by sending vast outlays of free grain and food to Africa’s most destitute regions. The problem is, that aid then floods the regions’ grain markets, making it even more difficult for those few African farms that can afford a surplus to find any place to sell it.
The AIDS in Africa bill costs its supporters nothing in political capital, and allows them to shed crocodile tears before the television cameras, but will it work? Hard to say. Foreign aid’s historical track record is miserable. But developmental economists do generally agree that if we must have international aid transfers, emergency outlays similar to the AIDS bill are the least worst way to go.
Either way, Africa’s primary problem isn’t AIDS, it’s poverty. AIDS is but one of several tragic and deadly symptoms, often brought on or exacerbated by poverty. And it’s the height of hypocrisy for politicians to bask in warm praise that comes with throwing taxpayer dollars at high-profile symptoms while their cozying up to Big Agriculture interests contributes to the underlying problem.
Africa needs access to western markets, not western welfare. Until American politicians stand up to the interest groups that keep Africa hungry, they’ll have no choice but to continue to pass $15 billion emergency aid bills, one after another – because Africa will continue to face emergencies, one after another.
Let President Bush tell Texas cattlemen (whom he once said were “vital to U.S. national security”) that their sucking at the public teat is over. Let Tom Harkin tell Iowa’s corn farmers that their phony ethanol subsidies are history. Let Elizabeth Dole and Ernest Hollings tell Carolina textile workers that their entire industry is an anachronism. Let Tom Daschle tell the AFL-CIO that it’s time to allow American companies to capitalize on the one thing poor countries have that rich countries don’t – cheap labor.
In short, let these politicians take public stands on policies that might actually heal Africa, instead of policies that stick band-aids on a leprous continent on the verge of holocaust. Start there, then we’ll talk about courage.