Monday, February 22, 2010

One year later: Has Obama failed the African poor?

The following is another sample post that I wrote for the Global Poverty cause at

On a crowded Nairobi street back in August 2009, a panhandler across the matatu-packed highway called out to get my attention: Mr. Obama, jambo! Utilizing my ostensible ethnic makeup and the US President's even more obvious popularity, this entrepreneur made a nearly successful attempt at acquiring a customer who really had no interest in buying anything.
Fast forward 6 months, and I wonder if that same panhandler would still consider using that same tactic.
Last week, the largest news publication in Kenya -- a country that previously declared a national holiday when Obama was elected -- published an article titled Has Obama been good to Africa?, raising into question whether the US President with Kenyan roots has lived up to the expectations of a continent where over 41% of the population lives on less than $1 a day. Expectations from those like my panhandler friend -- who dreams of opening his own kiosk -- or the matatu conductors, who imagine purchasing their own bus or taxi.
When looking back at Obama's first year in office, it's clear that the president has made steps in the right direction towards alleviating poverty. But it's also undeniable that the statistics of poverty are still denominated in the same millions and billions figures.

But while there is still an overwhelmingly daunting amount of work that remains, critics need to remember two things:

I. Sustainable development is very complicated and takes time
Although no one in their right mind would expect poverty to be eliminated overnight, it's equally unfair to believe that an administration could make a noticeable impact in a single year, especially given the history of dead aid and the mandate to revise the model.

As Obama acknowledged in Ghana, the West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner… the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by -- it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.

II. Africa’s future is ultimately up to Africans
While we live in a global, interconnected community, where events in Nairobi undoubtedly affect circumstances in New York, it is also clear that countries in Africa need to take ownership of their own future, and not depend on handouts from outside countries to catalyze change.

Or in the words of Obama, things can only be done if all of you [Ghanaians and Africans] take responsibility for your future… Opportunity won’t come from any other place. It must come from the decisions that all of you make, the things that you do, the hope that you hold in your heart.

So, while I re-ascertain that it is premature and unreasonable to assess the success of the Obama administration's economic development efforts in Africa, I also realize that the next time I'm called Obama might actually be by the matatu driver, as he swerves to avoid me crossing the street. At least for the time being.

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