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Time to Care about Africa
Tim Francis-Wright

9 September 2001

Last week, the United States walked away from the United Nations Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa. It officially withdrew because many Arab nations were pressing for the old canard that Zionism equaled racism. At the same time, however, African nations were pressing for language that slavery was a crime against humanity. The United States delegation did not want to admit to this premise because it feared calls for reparations. The final conference document did not contain the offensive language about Zionism. It did not call for reparations for slavery. In short, the conference participants might actually have done some good. Pity that the official American delegation could not take any credit.

The Bush administration has so far been unable to do almost anything right with respect to Africa. Each month brings with it another stupid or insensitive comment or action, so this month's machinations in Durban have immediate historical context.

In May, Andrew Natsios, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, explained to the Boston Globe that his agency would pay for AIDS prevention, not retroviral drugs in Africa. According to him, Africa lacked the necessary medical infrastructure and Africans "don't know what Western time is." Natsios echoed remarks from a "senior Treasury Department official," widely thought to be Paul O'Neill, that questioned the ability of most Africans to understand the hours in a day. As Bob Herbert of the New York Times pointed out in a June column, in Botswana and South Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is as bad as anywhere, the medical infrastructure is good. And according to Doctors without Borders, most retroviral therapy consists of pills taken twice daily. So, even if Natsios and his Treasury counterpart were correct about their reasons, their reasoning was all wet.

On June 14, in response to a reporter's question, President Bush reduced the world's second largest and second most populated continent to one country. "Africa is a national that suffers from incredible disease, and it suffers from poverty as well," he said at a summit in Sweden.

When the conference began in Durban, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was notable by his absence. In his stead were a slew of mid-level officials from the State Department, officials who carried none of Powell's moral authority as secretary. The official reason that Powell stated behind was that the preliminary conference documents harped on Israel's actions in the Middle East as racist. The United Nations, of course, has passed resolutions before equating Zionism with racism. Subsequent votes in recent years have rescinded those resolutions, because they are counterproductive. Despite all of the stupid and prejudiced actions by the government of Israel, the government of Israel does not speak for all Zionists. Further, the success of the Camp David peace accords showed that (with sufficient American money) even enemies as ingrained as Egypt and Israel to leaven to live with one another.

Because many countries would resist extreme actions by Arab countries, Powell and the Bush administration as a whole were unduly pessimistic. Powell could have gone to Durban and fought for documents that would help nations confront racism within their own histories. Instead, a toothless delegation went to Durban, and went home when it could not immediate get its way.

Arab countries have many valid criticisms of Israel that extend well beyond the anti- Semitism in much of the Arab world. Israel is a nuclear weapons state. It was a longtime friend of South Africa during the apartheid regime and the occupation of Namibia. It has engaged in an undeclared war against Palestine. It has maltreated Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, seizing land for Jewish settlements, destroying Palestinian property, and denying Palestinians access to water and other necessities.

The Arab call once again to equate Zionism with racism would not address the specific wrongs in Palestine and Gaza. It would not help to solve the conundrum of how to reconcile historically valid claims on the same land by both Palestinians and Israelis. Firm pressure by the South African hosts of the conference encouraged the Arab nations to settle for language that called for Palestinian self-determination, a Palestinian state, and an early conclusion to the peace process in the Middle East.

The discussion of slavery at the conference were more remarkable that the discussion of Zionism. The United States delegation forced itself into opposing resolutions that would declare slavery to be a crime against humanity. After the American delegation left, many African countries escalated their demands to include individual apologies and reparations. This escalation almost eliminated the chance for consensus on language that would call for a collective apology from the nations engaged in the slave trade, as well as concerted efforts to improve the lots of African countries.

Most European nations have ample reason to regret much of their historical relationship with Africa. The United States, starting with its origins as a British colony, should share that regret. The American agricultural and industrial economy first grew to prominence in the 18th century on the backs of African slaves. Many Americans on the Northeast benefited economically from the African slave trade, even though slavery was less common in the North than the South. Even after the abolition of American slavery, a century of disenfranchisement ensured that Americans of European descent had more economic, political, and social power than Americans of African descent.

Some have argued that we need to see slavery in its historical context, that slavery is a crime against humanity now, but not 150 or 200 or 250 years ago. In fact, many Americans knew that slavery was wrong, even then. Several religious groups were decidedly opposed to slavery. The Quakers as a group were opposed to slavery very early in the 1700s. In 1784, the Methodist Church started denying membership to slave owners.

Political documents echoed the growing religious sentiment against slavery. The Vermont Constitution of 1777 outlawed slavery. Courts in Massachusetts and New Hampshire ruled that slavery was illegal under their state constitutions. By 1804, gradual emancipation laws passed in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Even the federal constitution of 1787 specifically outlawed the Atlantic slave trade at any time after 1807. And the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, present-day Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

The political compromises of the early Republic indicate that the opprobrium of slavery extended beyond the Quaker and Methodist meetinghouses. Many Americans knew that slavery was wrong, but they also knew that slavery was a profitable institution. The compromises of gradual emancipation and the temporary nature of the Atlantic slave trade attempted to balance the moral case against slavery with the economic benefits that white society gained from it. Americans have no business ignoring the historical evidence that many of our predecessors felt strongly that slavery was morally and legally wrong.

Because it never was a colonial power in Africa, the United States had opportunities to build political alliances with newly independent African countries, starting in the 1960s. American alliances with African countries, however, were based on an anti- Communism that was as bipartisan as it was single-minded. Our most important ally for decades in Africa was the racist South African regime, solely because of their antipathy for Communism. The United States gave over $400 million, generally military aid, to Mobotu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), who ran his country like a personal fiefdom. In Angola, the United States supported all three factions (MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA) at different times during the civil war, depending on whom the Chinese and Soviets were supporting at the time. The foremost recipients of American military largesse in Africa have been Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire. This roster is an excellent selection of countries that have seen the most instability, the most abject poverty, and the least development in the last several years in Africa.

In 1998, the latest year available in the Statistical Abstract, the United States gave grants and credits of $13.8 billion to foreign countries and financial institutions. Of that amount, jyst under $5 billion went to Egypt and Israel. It might be money well spent, but it dwarfs the $1.3 billion sent to all of sub-Saharan Africa. At least we seem to have learned our lesson about military aid: almost all of the African aid is economic aid of one sort or another. But the total foreign economic aid budget for all countries for the upcoming fiscal year is only $8.8 billion out of a federal budget of $1,644 billion, about one-half of one percent. By contrast, the United States Department of Energy will spend $13.5 billion on the nuclear weapons laboratories and programs.

It is a credit to the nations that stayed for the duration at Durban that when the world's most powerful country left, they still emerged with a reasonable document. When the United States delegation left the conference, it conveyed the message that the United States was not really interested in reaching any sort of consensus. It showed the world that the United States was loathe to admit to obvious mistakes in its past. The United States went to Durban without its most charismatic Secretary of State in decades, and ot left Durban with the conference almost in shambles.

The United States cannot get involved in every civil war in Africa, or every conflict between African states. But it can help African countries solve their dramatic health problems. It can help African economies emerge from their doldrums. It can give something back to a continent that it exploited for centuries. Whether that something is called reparations, or a Marshall Plan for Africa, or the Bush Plan, or the Powell Plan, or even the Natsios plan, it is better than the neglect that Africa is now getting from the United States. The Bush administration now needs to show the world that it actually cares about Africa, now that there aren't any Communist bogeymen lurking about.

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