Tillerson announces humanitarian aid to Africa, criticizes Chinese role

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo by: U.S. Department of State

NAIROBI — U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced nearly $533 million in humanitarian aid to Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Lake Chad Basin, during a speech Tuesday that outlined the status of the United States' relationship with Africa and also jabbed aggressively at China’s recent expansion of influence on the continent.

The speech comes as Tillerson departs for a five-nation, week-long visit to Africa, which will be his first visit to the continent as a U.S. government official.

While famine was largely avoided in the region last year because of a scaled-up humanitarian response, millions are still in need of aid because of drought and conflict. In South Sudan alone, an estimated 9,000 people will lose access to food every day from now until April, according to Mercy Corps. During the speech at George Mason University, Tillerson acknowledged the importance of finding long-term diplomatic solutions to the conflicts in the region in order to ease the humanitarian crises.  

Tillerson also used the speech to turn blame on the Chinese for putting African countries into high levels of debt that endanger their long-term economic and political stability. China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and American exports to Africa fell from $38 billion to $22 billion between 2014 and 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We partner with African countries by incentivizing good governance to meet long-term security and development goals,” he told the audience. “This stands in stark contrast to China’s approach, which encourage dependency, using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nation’s in debt and cut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.”

China has invested heavily in infrastructure projects across the continent, including building roads, ports, and railways, as part of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, as well as investments in other sectors, such as mining.

“Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries,” he said.

Tillerson will be visiting Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad, and Nigeria on the trip, which comes in the wake of the Trump administration budget proposal to cut U.S. foreign affairs spending by roughly one-third. Key positions for the continent also lay vacant, including the senior U.S. State Department position for Africa, ambassador appointments in a handful of African nations, as well as other posts.

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    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.