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US Aid to Africa Assessed, A Wider Focus Is Sought

Ivory Coast ambassador to US warns of negative perceptions of his continent

PERIL and promise characterize the Clinton administration's view of Africa, where the ongoing tragedy in Rwanda is every bit as dramatic as the momentum of democratic change in South Africa.

While White House strategists reassess the United States' role as peacekeeper in regional trouble spots, they are refining their focus on aid and investment in areas where they expect handsome returns for US foreign policy and commercial interests.

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But Africa's bad image, reinforced by recent battles, and the administration's narrowing focus on the ``southern cone'' trouble proponents of stepped-up American engagement in other poor African states.

Ivory Coast ambassador to Washington Charles Gomis describes his service as fighting an uphill public-relations battle to reverse negative US perceptions of Africa. While his own government recently realized a peaceful transfer of power and embarked on painful economic reforms, such gains are lost in the picture of poverty and violence. ``We just got over Somalia, now we're [into a new phase of Western horror over events in] Rwanda.''

Interest in South Africa

Mindful of the Clinton administration's interest in aiding and investing in post-apartheid South Africa and its neighbors, he cautions policymakers not to divert needed resources from east, west, and central Africa.The ambassador is ``echoing what we hear from other African leaders that we are focusing exclusively on the southern cone,'' says an administration official. ``We focus on South Africa as an opportunity - that's the imperative for advancing our [economic and political reform] policy on the continent - but not at the expense of eastern, central or western Africa. We're not robbing Peter to pay Paul, in terms of our development assistance.''

Washington's financial help to Africa remains ``pretty constant at a time when we are decreasing aid to Asia and Latin America,'' the official says. Next year, US aid to South America and the Caribbean will be slashed to half the level of 1993, while outlays for Africa will stay at $1 billion.

Gomis puts that number into perspective. His country suffered a ``$2 billion loss per year in 1991 and 1992 in our coffee and cocoa industries.'' The Ivory Coast is a window into sub-Saharan poverty. Its once relatively successful commmodity-driven economy hit the skids when the market value for key crops plummeted. Roughly 40 percent of its 12 million residents are emigres from neighboring countries wrought with civil conflict, unstable economies, or both.

The Clinton administration's recent decision to lump African aid with more general aid efforts rather than ``earmark'' funds for pressing needs worries Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Africa subcommittee. There are separate accounts for Middle Eastern and ex-Soviet countries, but not for Africa, he says.

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The money should be better put to use, says Gomis, who faults the US and other Western nations for simply responding to crises, rather than helping to avert them. US funds have gone toward beefing up military personnel in hot spots like Liberia, Angola, and Somalia. ``More US muscle is needed for preventative diplomacy and conflict resolution,'' the administration official says.

Washington's humanitarian outreach will likely widen, he predicts. While the US is the largest relief provider for southern Sudan, American officials are watching other potentially explosive problems, such as Zaire, ``where the political situation could fall apart and trigger massive humanitarian needs,'' says the official. But the rapid breakdown of the Rwandan state shows just how limited the US is in its ability to affect change, he says. ``I cannot recall seeing anything deteriorate so quickly and so savagely.''

Enhancing Africa's status

The most important contribution the US can make to Africa's development, he adds, is to enhance its capability to play a larger role in the world economy.

One way is to stimulate American-African joint ventures with US government loans and investment guarantees from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

``Africa was never really seen as a place to do business and to use an economic program like ours,'' says OPIC president Ruth Harkin, adding that her southern Africa effort is driven by US foreign-policy concerns and American investors' desire.

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