By Michael Shank
As President Barack Obama hosts the Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington D.C. this week, it’s important for the president to put on the front-burner policies that promote peace on the continent. Instead of prioritizing counter-terrorism, resource extractive or aid-only agendas – which is what has predominantly characterized America’s policies in the past – the president should take a page out of a recently released peace index that shows a more productive path for the 54 countries on the continent, nearly 50 of which are attending the Washington summit this week.
Lest the United States get increasingly interested in the kinds of military-first interventions that have characterized recent U.S. foreign policy in places like Libya, Mali, or Somalia (where instability and insecurity remains rampant), the Leaders’ Summit should serve as an reflection point before the West worsens the wars it’s waging on the continent.
For the U.S. to help countries such as the Central African Republic, Egypt or South Sudan – the top three deteriorating countries on the 2014 Global Peace Index (GPI), an index that ranks 162 countries based on safety and security in society, domestic and international conflicts, and militarization – the answer won’t be found in drone strikes or air strikes, military-first approaches or aid dispatches.
Nor will Zambia, Chad, Burundi and Liberia – four of the Top 10 countries most at risk of falling into instability and violence – be made more resilient. The answers will, instead, be found in the attitudes, institutions and structures that sustain peaceful societies, all of which requires a more patient and persevering Western hand. This is what we should be funding.
The problem with many of the West’s policies on the African continent is that they tend to focus on the violence – e.g. weapons imports/exports, terrorist activity, homicide rates, violent demonstrations, conflicts fought, and violent crime (some of the top indicators on the GPI). That’s where U.S. administrations tend to direct the majority of funds, ignoring the very indicators that promote peace.
In the still violent and unstable Libya, for example, U.S. taxpayers spent half a million dollars on each of the several hundred Tomahawk missiles it rained down on the country, leaving its institutions and infrastructures in ruins, ignored and unrestored. The U.S. administration prioritized a military response in Libya but failed to prioritize that which would help her become less violent, whether it was a well-functioning government, equitable distribution of resources, human capital, lower corruption, sound business environments, the rights of others, free flow of information, or better relations with neighbors.
Libya is not unique. The story is the same in other places on the continent. Somalia got the same military treatment, leaving the thousands of unemployed youth to be recruited to al Shabaab for nothing more than $20 and a cell phone. Similarly, it is no surprise, for example, that some of the most unstable and insecure countries in Sub-Saharan Africa perform the poorest in the JustJobs Index’s ranking of countries with employment opportunity, income security, employment security, safety at work and healthy work conditions, equality of treatment and opportunity.
Any young man or woman – whether in Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, South Sudan or the Central African Republic – is going to be much less inclined to pursue violence if they’ve got a good job, a quality education and legitimate socio-economic opportunities available to them. Without these basic ingredients, these same young people have nothing to lose.
If the West is going to wage any war on the African continent, this is the one it should wage. It’ll be a lot cheaper in the long run. The global economic impact of violence last year was a whopping $9.8 trillion. That’s 11.3 percent of global gross domestic product or two times the total GDP of Africa.
In Liberia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Somalia, containing violence is particularly costly, averaging approximately 20 percent of these countries’ GDP. These are much needed funds that could be spent on the aforementioned indicators that correlate strongly with more peaceful environments.
As nearly 50 of Africa’s leaders gather in Washington this week, let’s commit to the kind of economic and educational opportunities necessary to cool the conflicts plaguing the continent. We know what that means in terms of policy, and while it may be less immediate, less newsworthy, and less foreign contractor friendly, it is what is necessary. It is time to help Africa. It’s been hurting for too long.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the associate director for legislative affairs the Friends Committee on National Legislation, adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and senior fellow at the JustJobs Network. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Shank.