The Ambassador
Photo by Angilee Shah

By Angilee Shah, Staff Writer

The Ambassador's Role

The U.S. ambassador to Benin discusses the U.S. agenda, the Beninese ethos, and the trials of his vocation.

I honestly feel as though, in African policy, we're with the angels on so many things, and we're doing so many good things.

While it used to be that an ambassador's role was to serve as the President's representative in a foreign country, U.S. Ambassador to Benin Wayne E. Neill said Aug. 18 at a talk sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center, times have changed.

"Now I think the role has moved to being one of an inter-agency manager," said Neill. "An effective ambassador is a person who can get an idea of where the country should be going, what the visions are, and then move inter-agency processes forward to serve U.S. interests, to find U.S. interests."

In a small country such as Benin, a West African nation of seven million inhabitants that has long been viewed by U.S. policy-makers as of little strategic importance, an ambassador has wide discretion to determine the nature of U.S. interests, according to Neill. And although ambassadors do not have the option of defying U.S. policy, even where they disagree with it, Neill said that U.S. embassies can work through other organizations to accomplish certain aims.

In response to a question about the so-called global gag rule, which denies U.S. aid to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that perform abortions or advocate abortion rights, Neill explained, "Where you can't change something, you work around it. If you can't work around it, … this is where donor coordination is important." Neill said that by putting U.S. funds in projects that other organizations are already working on, U.S. embassies can free those organizations and their donors to advance causes that the U.S. cannot back directly. President Bush reinstated the gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, upon taking office in 2001. Neill did not say whether funds from his embassy were ever redirected to circumvent the policy.

Neill also negotiated an agreement with the Beninese government so that it would not hand Americans over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. The ICC was created to try individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. U.S. embassies around the globe press for such agreements. Without explaining his personal views, Neill reminded the audience of about 30 people that he was a member of the American Bar Association, and that the association backed U.S. participation in the ICC. Neill studied law at UCLA.

Neill said that ambassadors are "required and honor-bound to honor" all administration policies, and that those who cannot should quietly resign. For his part, Neill agrees with most of U.S. policies in Africa. "I honestly feel as though, in African policy, we're with the angels on so many things, and we're doing so many good things."

Among the good things the U.S. does in Africa, Neill said, is to clearly articulate policy. Clear policies help programs continue even as embassy leadership changes. That is important, he argues, because ambassadors rarely affect significant changes until the final year of their three-year tenures.

"I think, in the past, Democratic and Republican administrations, they've been foggy, especially during the Cold War," Neill said. "We were not looking at what our basic interests were in the country and how our interests needed to be served. I think we were in a drift period and I think we're paying the price for that now."

Benin and foreign aid

Roughly the size of Alabama, the Republic of Benin lies between Nigeria and Togo on Africa's western side. Beninese earn an average of about $400 annually. They depend on the cotton trade and a "tremendous informal economy largely tied to the Nigerian economy," said Neill. Many make a living by smuggling subsidized gasoline from Nigeria and selling it in Benin for a few cents below domestic prices. The country runs on external assistance, customs receipts from the port, and taxes on cotton.

At the end of World War II, Benin (then called Dahomey) became a French colony. From 1960 to 1972 the country went through a series of peaceful coup d'etats. Benin operated under a Marxist dictatorship until 1989, when it became an independent democracy for the first time, according to Neill. A former dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, became president in 1996 and is now in his second term. Many people want Kerekou to change the constitution so he can run for a third term; Neill said he will not.

On the international scene, Benin is very active. "For a small country, they have taken an extraordinary role," said Neill. Benin holds a seat until the end of this year on the U.N. Security Council. Two Beninese ship battalions are involved in peacekeeping operations in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and the Democratic Republic of Congo. "They have sent peacekeeping troops as far as Timor-Leste [East Timor], all the way out to Haiti, and I think that's a good-news story, and we're looking for the U.S. government to support them. My big thing is I want them to have body armor. If they're going out into harm's way, I want them to be protected."

The U.S. embassy in Benin works closely with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on a $20 million aid program. While $1 million is invested in governance and $3 million in food aid, most of the budget goes into education and health initiatives. Many education programs are designed to help stave off perennial teacher strikes that plague Beninese schools.

Neill said that child labor and a focus on educating boys more than girls are deeply entrenched in the Beninese way of life and therefore hard to alter. The U.S. supports girls' education by paying fees and supplying uniforms and books. Girls' education, Neill said, is important because families of educated mothers have better health and higher incomes. Neill hopes to reinstate a program that encouraged girls to attend college.

U.S. aid to Benin comes under attack because of attached strings and waste in the system. Lazare Houetin, a Beninese attendee of the talk, said that although he does not mind collaboration between Benin and foreign countries, outside control of the country is a major issue. "If we were free to do what we want to do, we'd do very much," he says. At the time of the talk, Houetin was visiting California to direct an African dance program in Pasadena.

Neill argued that funds should be disbursed with fewer requirements, with "untied" aid from the U.S. replacing "tied" aid. He cited a requirement in the Jones Act that U.S. food assistance be moved by American flagged vessels.

Forgotten continent

"Africa, traditionally, in the schema of U.S. foreign policy, sort of occupied a really obscure place," said Neill. "Throughout the history of the United States, Africa tends to be just a little bit shunted off."

However, Neill maintains that the present administration is moving in a different direction. He said that U.S. priorities in Africa include democratization, economic growth, environmental protections, fighting disease, and general stability. Neill stressed the significance of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), the Bush administration's approach to providing assistance for countries that meet certain standards of democratization, health, and welfare of their own people, and have some promise of providing a return on the investment..

Sixteen countries have qualified to make proposals for investments from the $2.5 billion set aside in the MCA. The Bush administration is seeking $3 billion more for the account, said Neill. Benin is one of eight African qualifiers, and its proposal is expected to be signed in October or November. Benin is asking for investments to bring agricultural production to export quality and to increase the efficiency of the port.

The U.S. seeks to strengthen regional and continent-wide institutions such as the African Union. Neill, who worked on the peace process that led to a resolution in 2002 of Sudan's long-running civil war, said it is important to find African solutions to African problems. Neill was Special Advisor to the assistant secretary of State for African Affairs from 2002 to 2003 and directed the African Bureau's Office of Regional Affairs from 2000 to 2002. In the case of the current conflict and alleged genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, "it is the African Union that has sent in peacekeeping troops," Neill said. "I think we have a responsibility -- logistically, equipment and training -- to assist Africans who are willing to do this sort of thing."

Organizations like the African Union are also important in the economic health of African countries. Africa has one of the lowest rates of regional integration in terms of trade in the world, Neill said. Twenty percent of trade on the continent is between African countries, whereas 70 percent of trade in Europe is between Europeans. "That means, for example, [in] Benin and Ghana you're likely to have far more trade with France and Britain than you are between Benin and Ghana," said Neill.

"Free trade is necessary. It has to start within Africa," Neill said. He supports a U.S. free trade agreement with sub-Saharan Africa, similar to agreements with Jordan and Israel. Currently the African Growth and Opportunity Act is in place to provide countries access to North American markets as an incentive for building free markets. These sorts of free markets are in the United States' best interests for economic reasons, in Neill's view.

On the issue of African environmental protections, Neill says too little has been done by anyone. In Africa, partnerships are beginning with NGOs to look for sustainable agriculture. Beninese cotton is grown using pesticides and fertilizers, so there is a need, said Neill, to educate people not to drink contaminated well-water or to misuse chemicals. Part of the difficulty, particularly in Benin, is the need for "effective donor coordination" to create a division of labor between NGOs and foreign investors. "The Chinese are creating incentives to chew up the environment," said Neill. "Working with them, we can steer [Benin] to more environmentally sustainable activities."

Fighting HIV/AIDS, along with tuberculosis and malaria, are also very high on the U.S. government's agenda, said Neill. "The world being as small as it is, and growing smaller every day, we have a very strong interest in fighting diseases and preventing their spreading so that travelers don't bring them to our shores." Less than two percent of Beninese are infected with HIV/AIDS; in Botswana more than one in three adults are infected.

Published: Monday, September 12, 2005