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Voices of ordinary Africans should inform U.S. policy toward Africa

25 Sep 2020
By Naunihal Singh, E. Gyimah-Boadi, and Carolyn Logan

Originally published by The Africa Report.

Regardless of who wins the U.S. elections in November, analysts have argued that a process of updating and revitalizing U.S. policy toward Africa is overdue. New data from Afrobarometer’s latest round of public attitude surveys conducted across 18 African countries during 2019/2020 provide several guideposts for U.S. policy makers.

Why should the voices of ordinary Africans matter to U.S. Africa policy? American policy must take account of the increasingly competitive environment for opportunities and influence in Africa, especially in the context of China’s growing engagement on the continent.

A forward-looking Africa policy must therefore address areas of mutual interest to both the U.S. and African governments – and to their publics. Across much of Africa, elections increasingly play a real role in selecting and replacing leaders – they are no longer merely a rubber stamp for the ambitions of unchallenged incumbents. A foreign policy informed by what African publics want is a pragmatic necessity.

For policy makers and analysts, we highlight Africans’ priorities and preferences with regard to sovereignty and self-sufficiency, democracy and accountability, and investment – in jobs, health, infrastructure, and education.

Sovereignty and self-sufficiency

Africans are not looking for a handout, and may increasingly recognize the costs – both political and financial – of high indebtedness. When Afrobarometer asked whether countries should “finance development from their own resources, even if it means paying more taxes,” or rely on external loans, respondents favored self-reliance by more than a 2-to-1 margin (64% vs. 29%) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Funding national development | 18 African countries | 2019/2020


Question: Which of the following statements is closest to your view? Choose Statement 1 or Statement 2.

Statement 1: It is important that as an independent nation, we finance development from our own resources, even if it means paying more taxes.

Statement 2: We should use external loans for the development of the country, even if it increases our indebtedness to foreign countries and institutions.

These aspirations to self-sufficiency do not mean Africans reject international assistance. But they prefer to retain local control and resist imposition of conditions on external loans or development assistance: 54% insist that their governments should make their own decisions about how loans and development assistance are used, compared to 42% who prefer that the countries providing the funds strictly enforce requirements on how funds are used. A smaller majority also dislike aid conditionality, even when it is designed to promote democracy and human rights (50% oppose conditionality, 45% favor it). 

Conditionality has traditionally marked a key distinction between the Western approach, which uses aid as a carrot to promote liberal reforms, and China’s more hands-off approach. Threading the needle of meeting U.S. policy goals for development assistance while respecting African sovereignty and the desire for self-directed development will be one of the particular challenges for a revitalized U.S. Africa policy.

Democracy and accountability

Africans express consistently strong support for democratic norms and accountable governance. Across the 18 countries included in the most recent surveys, nearly seven in 10 respondents (68%) express a preference for democracy, and this figure remains relatively steady across the 15 countries tracked since 2011 (Figure 2). Even larger percentages reject strongman rule (81%), one-party rule (76%), and military rule (73%).

In addition, a large (albeit declining) majority still see the ballot box as the sole legitimate method for choosing leaders, and support for limits on presidential tenure is strong and steady.

Figure 2: Support for democracy and democratic institutions | 15 African countries  | 2011-2020



Which of these three statements is closest to your own opinion?

Statement 1: Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.

Statement 2: In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.

Statement 3: For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.

(% who say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government)


Which of the following statements is closest to your view?

Statement 1: We should choose our leaders in this country through regular, open, and honest elections.

Statement 2: Since elections sometimes produce bad results, we should adopt other methods for choosing this country’s leaders.

(% who “agree” or “agree very strongly” with Statement 1)


Which of the following statements is closest to your view?

Statement 1: It is more important to have a government that can get things done, even if we have no influence over what it does.

Statement 2: It is more important for citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even if that means it makes decisions more slowly.

(% who “agree” or “agree very strongly” with Statement 2)


Which of the following statements is closest to your view?

Statement 1: The Constitution should limit the president to serving a maximum of two terms in office.

Statement 2: There should be no constitutional limit on how long the president can serve.

(% who “agree” or “agree very strongly” with Statement 1)


Africans also increasingly recognize the importance of accountability: Across 15 countries tracked since 2011, preference for having an accountable government over one that “can get things done” has increased by more than 10 percentage points, from 54% to 65%. This suggests that democracy is valued even if it comes with costs. A values-led foreign policy that reinforces democratic norms and accountable governance should meet with public support, even if it rankles incumbent autocratic leaders. Dictators are not welcome, even if they claim to offer effective governance.

Policy priorities: Investment

Afrobarometer also asks respondents to identify “the most important problems that government should address,” recording up to three responses per person. Jobs (mentioned by 35% of all respondents) and health care (32%) top the list, followed by infrastructure/roads (27%), education (26%), and water supply (24%) (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Most important problems | 18 African countries | 2019/2020


Question: In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that government should address? [Note: Respondents could give up to three responses. Figure shows the percentage of respondents who identified each issue as one of their three responses, so the total is more than 100%.]

U.S. foreign aid already places a high priority on health, spending more than $4 billion in this sector in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018. After emergency response, health (including HIV/AIDS spending) is the largest category of American foreign assistance to Africa. Given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, even higher levels of investment may be forthcoming.

However, if the U.S. government wishes aid expenditures to be fully appreciated by African publics, it may want to prioritize aid that leads (directly or indirectly) to job creation, while making the case that investment in areas such as education, agriculture, and infrastructure also leads to economic growth and jobs. Employment remains the most central popular concern in Africa, ranking well above current U.S. priority sectors such as conflict, peace, and security.

Even if the United States is unable to match China’s pledged $60 billion in loans and aid to the continent, it can maximize the impact of its available resources by building an Africa policy that is consistent with the aspirations and values of African publics, especially when these align with American values such as self-sufficiency, sovereignty, and accountable democratic governance.

Responding to Africans’ own policy priorities, especially for jobs and better health care, will also help the United States build a renewed and durable alliance with the people of the continent, and through them with their governments.

Naunihal Singh is assistant professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, U.S.A. He is the author of Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. He is writing in a personal capacity; all opinions are his own.

E. Gyimah-Boadi is chairman of the board and interim CEO of Afrobarometer.

Carolyn Logan is Afrobarometer director of analysis and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Michigan State University.

Image:"President Barack Obama's Historic Africa Speech in Accra, Ghana on July 11, 2009" by US Army Africa is licensed under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0