Why were the hopes for development of new African states so disappointed after they attained independence? Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman J. Cohen took a long view.
His conclusions may help Public Diplomacy officers now assigned to Africa think through how best to support the development enterprise. State and USAID officers who aimed – and aim — for rapid change in Iraq and Afghanistan may also benefit from Cohen’s insights. In both cases, for instance, there were “cultural, geographic, climatic, and religious impediments” to “slow things down.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Cohen recounted how the Eisenhower administration launched several decades of development assistance, and the President “set the tone of Washington’s outreach to the newly independent states by saying, ‘We must win their hearts and minds.”
Cohen concluded, however, that “Washington’s optimistic idealists were naive to believe that the new African nations were ready to make the leap from colonial dependency to sustainable irreversible economic development overnight. All they needed, we assumed, were hundreds of smart men and women swarming into their countries transmitting knowledge and equipment. We quickly learned that cultural, geographic, climatic, and religious impediments were out there to slow things down,” he added. Vice President Nixon contributed his own misjudgments.
Decisions made by the first generation of African leaders also frustrated economic and political development. Among them were the nationalization of private sector enterprises and the eventual establishment of one-party states.
Cohen’s article focused on development and made no specific mention of U.S. Public Diplomacy programs, but it is suggestive nonetheless. He cited the importance of international education, the growth of free media, the role of international broadcasters like the VOA and BBC, and the value of less “telling” and more “listening.” Here are some key quotes:
- With the second and third generations of African chiefs of state now in power, things have changed somewhat for the better. Many countries in the region now host multiparty democratic systems, even if the quality of these democracies is fragile.
- The number of privately owned free media outlets has grown. There are very few African countries today that do not have privately owned newspapers, radio stations, and TV outlets competing with government media. The Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Company, and Radio France all broadcast from local FM stations.
- A more enlightened generation of African leaders is slowly moving to the fore country by country, providing hope that the continent will continue to progress steadily and gain footing alongside other emerging nations around the world.
- Unfortunately, on top of their other problems, several African regions cannot escape the scourge of jihadist terrorism that has radiated out from adjacent Arab countries. It is in this aspect that the United States and donor states in Europe have paid the price for their failure to intervene politically with the first generation leadership.
- Although Africa can now boast of several success stories, several nations in the region have failed to recover from their initial setbacks after colonialism, and remain vulnerable to terrorism. The education and development deficits seen in these nations have created generations of deprived Muslim youths who have become susceptible to jihadist brainwashing.
- But over the decades, as tens of thousands of young Africans have obtained university education at home and abroad, we learned that progress could be achieved only when Africans took ownership of their own development. Around 1990, we stopped telling African leaders what they needed, and instead began to listen to them tell us how they wanted to grow their economies. The results have been positive in an expanding number of African countries.
Earlier this year, Ambassador Cohen was honored by the American Foreign Service Association for Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.