Benefiting from Obama

Barack Obama

By Edwin Laurent, OBE, CMG

Barack Obama’s reconfirmation as America’s President is a defining indicator of our progress towards a post-racial era, whose significance cannot be overestimated. But might the Caribbean and Africa actually obtain major benefits from the second term?
He wrote of himself in his Audacity of Hope: “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”.
His keen social conscience, background and natural empathy with African development challenges, encouraged considerable initial optimism in his first term.
Popular wisdom however holds that there was not much in the first term for Africa and the Caribbean.
Some observers complained of a lack of attention citing the few visits to Africa and even less to the Caribbean though it is not evident what such photo opportunities in themselves actually signify for the countries.
Caribbean-African benefits
The jury is still out on the question of the benefit secured by the Caribbean and Africa.
However, Mr Obama's first term though should not be judged on superficial things like presidential visits, audiences afforded Presidents and Prime Ministers in the White House or the rhetoric, but rather on how US Government’s policies and decisions during those year actually enhanced or  affected the external environment that the countries face, their well-being and development prospects.
Such an assessment requires major analytical research, which some renowned academic institution will, I am sure, undertake one day.
Whilst the definitive verdict on the first term will only emerge in due course, for now I will settle on a very crude and far from perfect proxy for the level of support for economic development: the dollar value of financial and technical assistance.
What do the figures tell us?
According to OECD data, in 2008, the year before President Obama assumed 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.
Presidential empathy or pragmatism
What one can draw from this measurement is that there was in fact a substantial increase in support for Africa during Mr Obama’s presidency.
We have an occupant of the White House who has a special understanding of, and empathy with, the development challenges of Africa, but why didn’t his first term live up to 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?
I suspect that all of these played a part, but I will not speculate further. Instead, I will look towards the second term and consider what Africa and the Caribbean might do to ensure better outcomes.
From the outset I should stress a quite obvious reality that must not be taken for granted - Mr Obama’s guiding and defining role is that of President of the United States of America.
He takes his role absolutely seriously. In the preamble to his Audacity of Hope, he sees the leader as “subject to…our collective consent”. 
He was neither elected for, nor sees himself as having gotten to the White House to pursue, a pro-black or African agenda.
Despite his values, idealism and background, Mr 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 re-set rules of the game.
It is necessary to also remember that while 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.
Doing it for ourselves
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, he might need to win over powerful opponents who can obstruct his plans. Just consider gun-control.
In that inaugural address made famous by those immortal words to the American people, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”, President John Kennedy had also 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 “struggling to break the bonds of mass misery”, as these countries’ own responsibility, not America’s.
He however confirmed that, “we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves” giving as reason, “because it is right”.
Mr Obama’s own ideas on engagement with countries of the "South" are based on mutual respect that is 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.
Second term opportunities
President Obama in his second term, relieved of the strictures of having to face re-election, more confident 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 themselves need to do much more to help.
Let me suggest outlines of an approach to more beneficial engagement with the US.
Upfront, Africa and the Caribbean themselves need to accept and appreciate the full ramifications of the fact that their countries’ economic and social progress are their own sovereign and exclusive responsibilities, not those of the US or any outside country, no matter how seemingly benign.
This means that it is for them to select the most appropriate pro-development policies and have the courage to implement them.
Having first decided where they want to end up and selected their development path and policy mix to be pursued, they will then have to consider what changes in the external environment will help advance their national goals.
The next stage will be to consider how precisely the US, with its considerable economic and political power, can act directly or indirectly to contribute to the realisation of the desired changes.
Seeking to influence and help bring about these changes in policy and action provides a logical foundation for these countries' policies and strategy of engagement with the US.
Such a clear understanding of what is needed from the US is essential as the countries organise themselves and draw up an effective strategy for pursuing their aims.
Lobby challenges
Some of the steps and approaches outlined below might seem onerous, but the potential benefit of getting the US on side can be substantial.
Just consider the experience of the Israeli lobby, whose experience is certainly the most spectacular example of a foreign country’s successful lobbying and mobilising of domestic interest groups in the US to influence policy.
Its strategy 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 considerable Israeli success is probably not replicable by any other country, since there are other unique contributory factors at play in the US-Israel relationship).
Action points
  • Before drawing up the strategy, extensive research will invariably be required, including into identifying the various domestic interest groups and the implications for them, both positive and negative of implementation of the desired policy or decision. The identity, role and functioning of all the entities that might be involved in decision making and how they might be persuaded will also have to be researched and established. The countries will need to courageously and effectively pursue the resulting strategy that they draw up for advancing their interests.
  • Advancing the policies decided upon and seeking to win over support in the US and elsewhere will require those Governments to effectively mobilise, brief and deploy their national representatives whilst ensuring that they actually pursue the agenda and "remain on message".
  • It will often be helpful to work with allies, whether international or domestic. African and Caribbean Governments can find that it is essential to cultivate support among US domestic interests groups whilst seeking to neutralise the influence of opponents or counter the appeal of their case. (Coalitions can be issue-based and the choice of allies does not have to imply congruence of all long-term goals. An example of a temporary alliance of convenience could well be over the Caribbean opposition to the subsidies paid to rum distilleries in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. It is conceivable that some in the US alcohol industry could well oppose this financial aid being given to their competitors and conceivably want it reduced or even stopped).
  • In pursuing their interests the countries’ representatives should engage actively and in a disciplined, consistent and coherent manner with targets in the administration, Congress, the media and elsewhere. Having this broader scope of lobbying is generally essential when seeking to secure favourable policies from the US, since a range of entities possess autonomous power and influence over the making or obstructing of any particular policy or decision. Certain major issues will of course get to the level of the President where he will have to adjudicate. In such circumstances the more convincing (from a US standpoint) the case that the African or Caribbean countries have been able to make and the stronger and more vociferous their support base among US domestic entities, the easier it will be for the President to side with them.
  • When dealing with a more powerful country, having a sound and well articulated case is essential, though generally not enough. (Just recall Antigua won its internet gambling dispute, but the US has nonetheless not implemented the World Trade Organisation rulings). To get the more powerful country to provide accommodation or 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 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. In dealings with the US, African and Caribbean countries, though, have rarely been inclined to use such tactics, although they are the norm in contemporary inter-state relations and negotiations.
US influence
The extent of the specific development and political gains for Africa and the Caribbean from Obama’s second term will therefore largely depend on these countries own policy choices, their articulation of the development needs and the sophistication, thoroughness and effectiveness of their engagement with America.
Even more significant, though, will be the impact of Mr 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 that blacks are 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.