Tuesday, 4 August 2009

African Approval of Obama

In the week that Hillary Clinton arrives for her seven-country tour of Africa, how is Obama seen throughout the continent since taking office?

Much has been made of Obama’s Kenyan heritage in his popularity rankings, but the reality is that he is following a path set by his predecessor in the White House. For all the criticism and complaints about the Bush administration (which we won’t get in to here), George W did set a strong US policy for Africa, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest commitment by any country to combat HIV/AIDS in history.

While Obama’s trip to Ghana, followed so quickly by Hillary’s tour, make for a very public show of the US prioritisation of Africa, the US already enjoyed 73% approval from 33 Sub-Saharan African nations in 2008 – compared to just 34% across the world on average (Gallup).

Gallup has released further stats from March / April of this year that show that six of the seven countries surveyed (Kenya, Cameroon, South Africa, Uganda, Senegal and Mauritania) have seen an increase in approval of the US leadership since 2008. From an increase of 25% in Cameroon to an 11% drop in the final country – Djibouti – media approval across the seven went from 80% in 2008 to 87% in 2009. Substantial – but I’m not sure it points to more than any global media frenzy around the first Black American President would produce.

More interesting would be to compare approval of the US with sentiment towards the Chinese across Africa, for example. Why do we continue to hold the US up as the most important benchmark? However, despite the increasing influence and involvement of the BRIC countries in Africa, the suggestion that the US is trying to counter China’s rise in Africa with Clinton’s tour is “is a Cold War paradigm, not a reflection of where we are”, as the assistant secretary of State for African Affairs told Bloomberg.

While we read, write and blog about the impact of the Obama administration on Africa, are we obsessing about the topic by force of habit, by virtue of the media profile the topic enjoys, or because it actually counts?

Indeed, what difference will the trip make to the average African questioned by Gallup? To the major oil and mineral exporters in the countries that Mrs. Clinton is visiting – a few tax breaks or trade agreements, perhaps. But looking back to the statistics, Gallup states that at least 3/10 respondents in each country in their survey said the U.S. president makes a difference to their country. Even given the variation from country to country, that still leaves an awful lot of people in Africa that feel the US president makes little or no difference to their country – a far more pertinent statistic in my opinion.

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