Missed Opportunity Hurt US-African Relations for Decades
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

By Margaretta Soehendro, Staff Writer

Missed Opportunity Hurt US-African Relations for Decades

For the last half-century the United States has undermined itself in Africa by failing to distinguish itself from Europe and the colonial legacy, says Haskell Sears Ward, one of the first to graduate from UCLA with an interdisciplinary master's degree in African studies.

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Duration: 1:09:27

Western advisers introduced five- and 10-year centralized macroeconomic development plans when the West had no centralized planning mechanisms of our own.

The starting point for assessing U.S.-Africa relations in the post-colonial era is the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, when European powers carved up Africa "recklessly" and with little regard to historical and cultural affinities and ethnic boundaries, said Haskell Sears Ward, one of the first M.A. graduates from UCLA's interdisciplinary African Studies program.

Ward has decades of experience in international affairs and today is a senior vice president of Seacom, a company that's bringing high-speed Internet access to Southern and East Africa, Europe and South Asia. He talked about 50 years of U.S.-Africa relations at a lecture sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center on April 2, 2009. The center was established 50 years ago in 1959, and Ward entered the new master's program in 1965. Ward at the talk shared his experiences at UCLA learning from the late Professor C. Sylvester Whitaker, Jr., as well as former ASC Director Michael Lofchie and Professor Emeritus Richard Sklar.

Traveling with his wife, Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears of the Supreme Court of Georgia, the U.S. state, Ward remarked that she "has heard so much about UCLA that I wanted her to see where the center of my intellectual underpinning and understanding of Africa was derived."

The establishment of UCLA's African Studies program came two years after Ghana became the first African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule in 1957. The following year, President Eisenhower created the State Department's Africa Bureau.

In discussing the relationship between the United States and Africa over 50 years, Ward said that after the wave of independence, the United States never assessed its interests bilaterally with African nations and instead allowed the legacy of the "Scramble for Africa" Berlin Conference to shape relations.

Even after the colonial period, that is, the United States did not change its approach of meeting African nations on terms set by the European powers. If Great Britain was antagonistic toward its former colony Ghana, for example, the United States would adopt the British posture, according to Ward.

"What was this great lost opportunity? It was our failure...to differentiate our policies and values from those of a still-resistant and unfriendly Europe toward Africa," Ward said.

The greatest failure in U.S.-Africa relations, according to Ward, has been in the field of development assistance. Businesses, governments, and international and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) conditioned aid on an all-or-nothing acceptance of American and Western ways. They also imposed policies that would have never been instituted in the United States or Europe but were instated in Africa because they were to the donors' advantage.

"Western advisers and planners, with a heavy dose of U.S. and U.S. foundation input, introduced centralized macro policies through devices such as five- and 10-year centralized macroeconomic development plans, which is important because we in the West had no centralized planning mechanisms of our own," Ward said.

NGOs, though well-meaning, have also faltered because program priorities were decided far from Africa without local input, according to Ward, who had experience at the Ford Foundation before coming to UCLA and is familiar with the Rockefeller Foundation. Ward said coordinators decided the areas of support in the United States and took those decisions to Africa. If the locals wanted aid for something outside of those program priorities, they would face enormous obstacles, even in cases when a donor match could be identified.

As a result, Africans viewed the United States with disappointment and suspicion. As a non-colonial power, the United States was in great position to help shape a new relationship between Africa and the West. Africa looked to the United States to be an independent negotiator and found it lacking, Ward said.

"The prevailing sentiment which I have heard for most of the past 50 years is that a strong, charismatic African leader is antithetical to U.S. and African interests and must, therefore, be eliminated. Harsh words, but a prevailing thought and attitude in Africa," he said.

Ward said there were two bright spots in U.S.-African relations over the half century: the Peace Corps and educational institutions. Ward went to Ethiopia as one of the early Peace Corps volunteers. Volunteers posted to Africa have increased U.S. knowledge of the continent, helped the United States' reputation there, and gone on to policy-related and NGO work, he said.

Ward considers the 60s the golden age of African studies and said that, since then, universities have emerged as excellent centers of studies on the continent. International efforts have also made remarkable gains in the health sector.

For the future, Ward said the United States still must realize what its interests in Africa are.

"I believe now at this very moment in time that Africa is at the dawn of a great, new era."

Africa is one of the most profitable places for businesses, and private companies are rushing to do business on the continent, according to Ward. While security and Al Qaeda will remain top concerns for U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, Ward said Obama's challenge in Africa is to respond to problems while also creating structures that encourage Africa to take care of itself.

"If we can embrace these dual realities and respond creatively in a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect, the next 50 years of U.S.-Africa relations can build a new, prosperous future on the missed opportunities of the past," Ward said.

Published: Friday, April 10, 2009