WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration will put food security at the heart of its Africa policy, as it seeks to enhance ongoing U.S. efforts on trade, investment and HIV/AIDS on the continent, a top U.S. diplomat said.
“We want to see the food security initiative take on greater momentum as more African countries are drawn into this program,” said Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the administration’s top official for Africa.
“It is the first time we have seen such a powerful signature initiative come so quickly in an administration’s term in office,” Carson told Reuters in an interview. “This has been one of the fastest and swiftest starts that we’ve seen.”
Reviewing the first year of the Obama administration’s ties with Africa, Carson said visits by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the continent last year underscored strong U.S. support for economic development, good governance and the fight against corruption.
And he said Africans — some of whom have voiced disappointment that Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, has not devoted more resources to Africa — would soon see the food security initiative rolling out on a scale to rival major trade and HIV/AIDS commitments of previous U.S. administrations.
“While this food security initiative is global in nature, clearly its impact will have its greatest effect on Africa,” Carson said. “This is out and on the table already. No administration in the last four has come out so early with such a major initiative.”
The United States was a major backer of a plan unveiled by the Group of Eight (G8) developed countries last year to spend $20 billion over three years to help small-scale farmers in Africa and parts of Asia improve productivity as part of a long-term solution to chronic hunger and malnutrition.
Supporters hope the program will boost initiatives that give farmers seed, fertilizer, irrigation and infrastructure to get crops to market, as well as research to create seeds better suited to local conditions, and agricultural education.
Clinton, underscoring the initial $3.5 billion U.S. contribution to the program in a speech in September, said it was “one of the most ambitious and comprehensive diplomacy and development efforts our country has ever undertaken.”
“But it can and will be done,” she added.
Carson said the United States remained committed to current assistance projects, including the more than $60 billion pledged to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, billions of dollars in development grants made under the Millennium Challenge program, and special trade provisions that have spurred a huge jump in African exports to the U.S. market.
He said that African countries could also expect new U.S.-led initiatives to emerge, including broader efforts to promote health and new strategies to protect the environment.
Carson said Africa had seen some political setbacks despite Obama’s early message on governance and anti-corruption, pointing to military take-overs in Guinea, Niger and Madagascar as throwbacks to an earlier era on strongman rule.
Kenya, once the brightest star in East Africa, has become mired in political infighting and corruption while Nigeria, the continent’s most populous state and a major oil exporter, remains in perilous political waters ahead of new elections expected next year.
Chronic troublespots including Somalia, Zimbabwe and the Ivory Coast continue to fester — any one of which could explode into a sudden crisis.
But Carson said he was encouraged by the strong responses by the African Union and other regional groupings, saying they now seemed fully aligned with the broader goal of spreading democracy on the continent.
“Africa knows that the era of military dictatorship is a part of its past and should not be a part of its future,” Carson said, adding that a string of elections in coming months, including in Sudan and Nigeria, would be signposts to the future.
“We think that the success of these elections will help to determine whether democracy is growing stronger and more vibrant in Africa or whether it has reached a plateau,” Carson said. “My impression is that democracy remains strong in Africa and that Africans want it and are determined and committed to trying to achieve it.”
Editing by Paul Simao