Many in the development community believed President Barack Obama, because of his African heritage, would make helping the troubled continent one of his main priorities in his new administration. But more than a month into his term, Obama has done little do indicate that Africa is a major concern.
Obama's Africa policy is somewhat rudderless because he hasn't named an assistant secretary for African affairs, Semhar Araia said at a Feb. 19 panel discussion on the United States' Africa policy, hosted by Howard University's Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Araia is a member of the Obama-Biden transition team and former Africa analyst for the Elders, a group of world leaders convened by Nelson Mandela to promote the peaceful solution of conflict.
Because the seat is empty, it is "unrealistic to talk about dramatic policy shifts," said Araia, a former Hill staffer who stressed she was speaking in her own capacity, not as a member of the Obama team.
"Any change [in African policy] is tough to say without an assistant secretary," she noted. "It's difficult to assess what development will look like."
Araia said that once a secretary is appointed, African issues will be high on Obama's development priority list. Issues like HIV-AIDS, malaria, debt relief, better governance and capacity building are likely to be at the top of this list, she noted.
Araia also recited what is becoming an increasingly familiar refrain - more development work needs to be done by the State Department and less by the Pentagon. This includes a reduction of development work at Africom, the Pentagon's African command.
"U.S. foreign policy interest have been driven by defense and diplomatic interests," Araia said. "When people think of USAID, I know that many of us from Africa look at the organization with skepticism."
It's somewhat surprising, given Obama's rabid popularity in Africa as well as his own roots, that development issues have not been more of a priority in the president's early days in office. It's true that he is faced with a number of other issues - the economy, a sprawling Middle East conflict - but Africa's people as well as private and public-sector development workers are would embrace even a small gesture.
Perhaps Obama will address Africa and its development soon. But some stakeholders fear that his failure to appoint a point person for the conflict-ridden continent is an indication that development is going to move to the back-burner while other issues take priority.