Will Obama Deliver?

| February 14, 2013
Economic Columnist - Edwin Laurent CMG OBE

Economic Columnist – Edwin Laurent CMG OBE

Obama’s keen social conscience and background had encouraged widespread optimism in the Caribbean and in several other areas when he was first elected US President.

In his Audacity of Hope he had written of himself “I cannot help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatised and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives”.

Some observers though complained of a lack of attention during his first term to Africa and the Caribbean citing the few visits to Africa and even less to the Caribbean; as if such photo opportunities actually signify much for the countries themselves.

The first term though should be judged not on relatively superficial things like presidential visits, audiences granted to Presidents and Prime Ministers in the White House or the rhetoric, but rather on how US Government’s policies and decisions during those years, actually enhanced or impacted on the changes to the external environment that the countries face and on their well-being and development prospects.

Such an assessment requires extensive research, which no doubt some renowned academic institution will undertake one day. Whilst the definitive verdict on the first term will only emerge in due course, for now an indication of the level of support for economic development can be drawn from an admittedly very crude and far from perfect proxy; the dollar value of the assistance provided by the US.

The figures reveal that aid did in fact increase substantially during Obama’s presidency. According to OECD data, in 2008, the year before assuming office, aid to sub-Saharan Africa was US$6.8 billion or 28.6% of the aid budget. By 2011 the penultimate year of the first term, it had risen to US$8.9 billion or 33.4% of the total (at 2010 prices). The Caribbean’s share was much more modest, though it also grew during the period.

But why do so many people do not see his first term as living up to their expectations? Was it down to his preoccupation with other challenges? Were the expectations themselves unrealistic or unreasonable? Or did the countries fail to do enough to encourage and facilitate a natural ally to devise and provide support for them?

All of these factors probably played a part but, instead of speculating on the cause one should look to the second term and consider what Africa and the Caribbean might do to ensure better outcomes.

From the outset a quite obvious reality needs to be appreciated and never taken for granted; Obama’s guiding and defining role is that of President of the United States of America. He views his role absolutely seriously. In the preamble to his Audacity of Hope, he sees the leader as “subject to…our collective consent”.

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy cbc.ca

Obama was neither elected to nor sees himself as having gotten to the White House to pursue a pro-black or African agenda. Despite his values, idealism and background Obama is a result oriented pragmatist. His style is not to campaign or agitate from the periphery, but rather to master and work from inside the system; playing from within whilst excelling at the pre-set rules of the game.

It is necessary to also remember that whilst the President is powerful, he cannot, just on his own, get programmes implemented. This generally requires accommodation with other organs of power and influence, the Congress, the business community, the media, interest groups, lobbyists, the military and others.

In Africa, the Caribbean and often in Europe, getting the President or Prime Minister on side is the key hurdle. In the US, policy and decision making often progress via tortuous debate between different groups with the President putting his weight behind one side or the other.

Even for his own initiatives, powerful opponents can obstruct his plans and he might need to win them over or neutralise them; just consider gun-control.

In his inaugural address in January 1960, President Kennedy outlined an ethical and philosophical rationale for modern US development aid policy; albeit one that has not been consistently applied. He saw achieving progress in poor countries as these countries’ own responsibility not America’s.

Former President John F. Kennedy.

Former President John F. Kennedy. Photo courtesy en.wikipedia.org

He confirmed though, “we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves” giving as reason, “because it is right”; Obama’s own ideas on engagement with developing countries are based on respect that are in line with those principles laid out half a century ago.

They are though in direct contradiction to a paternalistic or neo-colonial mindset that, even to this day, can sometimes cloud international development policy making.

President Obama in his second term, relieved of the strictures of having to face re-election and with an eye on his legacy, might be bolder than before. This offers a great opportunity for Africa and the Caribbean.

It is though not a gift presented on a platter. Instead, if the potential benefit is to be secured, the countries must do much more to help themselves.

Africa and the Caribbean need first to fully appreciate that their national economic and social progress is their own sovereign and exclusive responsibility; not that of the US or any outside country, no matter how seemingly benign.

This means that it is for them to set their development path, to select the most appropriate national policy goals and development policies and have the determination to see them through.

From that foundation they can structure their external relations to help ensure that foreign institutions and countries, including the US with its considerable economic and political power, contribute directly and indirectly to furthering their goals.

Although influencing the US and getting it on side can be very difficult and challenging, the potential benefit is substantial. Look no further than the Israeli lobby whose experience is certainly the most spectacular example of a foreign country successfully mobilising domestic interest groups in the US to influence policy.

It has been so effective that regardless of who is the occupant of the White House, the State of Israel has always been able to retain the unquestioning and unwavering political and military support of the US government. (Of course whilst effective lobbying in the US can have a major impact, the extent of Israeli success probably cannot be matched by any other country since there are unique contributory factors at play in the US-Israel relationship).

In seeking to exert influence in the US, it will often be helpful to work with allies, whether international or domestic. (Coalitions can be issue-based and the choice of allies does not have to imply agreement on everything.

An example of a temporary alliance of convenience could well be over the Caribbean opposition to the subsidies paid to rum distillers in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

It is conceivable that some in the US alcohol industry could well be unhappy with the financial aid being given to their competitors and might prefer it reduced or even stopped).

When dealing with a more powerful country, having a sound and well articulated case is essential, though generally not enough. (Recall Antigua winning its Internet Gambling dispute, but the USA has nonetheless not implemented the WTO rulings).

To get the more powerful country to do what it might not otherwise wish to do, securing leverage to redress the power imbalance is vital. This can happen in various ways including via creating and empowering coalitions or putting on the table a concession that is seen as valuable by the stronger party or being prepared to withhold or withdraw a facility or benefit that the weaker party or coalition has previously granted or offered.

The extent of the specific development and political gains for Africa and the Caribbean from Obama’s second term will depend largely on these countries own policy choices, the articulation of their development needs and the sophistication, thoroughness and effectiveness of their engagement with America.

Even more significant though will be the impact of Obama’s own policies on the global economy and its institutions like the WTO, the IMF and others, and by extension the economic fortunes of Africa and the Caribbean.

Also, just as his confirmation in the White House sends a signal of the value of the black person in America, in the same way it debunks the notion, of blacks not being good enough at running countries.

Undermining such prejudice strengthens the ability of all countries to participate more fully in and contribute to international decision and policy making.

This should make for more democratic and inclusive global governance and a more equal and fairer world.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Category: Business, CariBusiness, Culture & Society, Politics

About the Author (Author Profile)

We provide news and information for anyone interested in the Caribbean whether you’re UK based, European based or located in the Caribbean. New fresh ideas are always welcome with opportunities for bright writers.

Comments are closed.