Africans are giving mixed reviews of the visit to Africa by Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and rock star Bono, of the Irish rock band U2. The visit is prompting new reflections on the image that many Africans have of the United States.
The Bush administration recently pledged to increase aid to Africa by up to $5 billion. The aim of Secretary O'Neill's visit is to give the United States a better sense of where and how some of that aid would be better spent.
The 11-day, four-nation tour began last week in the west African nation of Ghana. The itinerary through Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia, includes visits to markets, AIDS project facilities and private industries where donor money has been put to use.
Except for the countries where Mr. O'Neill and Bono are stopping, news of their visit has drawn little public attention, hardly appearing in newspapers in French-speaking nations.
Bono has been an outspoken advocate in the fight against poverty and AIDS. Secretary O'Neill said he invited the Irish rock singer to join him on this trip to provide insight on the issues. U.S. officials also hoped that the presence of Bono, who is 42 years old, would appeal to young people in Africa.
But few Africans are fans of U2. It is African pop music that rules the airwaves. Magazine columnist Samuel Doe Ablordeppey in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, has said many young people had never heard of the Irish rock band or its lead singer before he touched down in Ghana.
"Most people did not know so much about his background. They did not know he was a singer. So, we saw many of the radio stations taking their time, painstakingly trying to brief people about his background. They were interested. They were phoning. People have written letters, commenting on his coming," he said.
This 25-year-old Ghanaian, who asked not to be named, said he was puzzled by what he said was an unlikely duo of the Treasury Secretary and an Irish rock star. "I know and I read it in the paper that he was accompanied by the rock star, but for me, I do not have any interest in rock, so I do not know [what] the main aim [was] of accompanying him to the country," he said.
What has appeared to attract the attention of many people here is the fact that the U.S. government has sent one of its top officials to assess the needs of Africans. The two have received warm welcomes in all nations where they have stopped thus far.
Generally, Africans tend to see America as generous well-intentioned, albeit much less engaged in Africa than other rich nations of the world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks third behind France and Germany in the amount of aid it provides to sub-Saharan Africa. Some think the United States should be helping more.
Secretary O'Neill brought with him a sharp message that all U.S. aid should be accounted for, and that tangible results, such as visible improvements in the standard of living, need to be produced. Mr. O'Neill, who is a former corporate executive, has also insisted that aid should take the form of careful investment and trade incentives rather than direct handouts.
Bono, on the other hand, has said repeatedly on this trip that more needs to be spent on humanitarian and direct-aid programs.
Ghanaian economist Kuame Piannim in Accra said that for many African countries like his own, it is a case of needing money to make money. He said Ghana needs both direct aid and investment to develop.
"We need both. We need aid to build our infrastructure. Our telecommunications sector is weak. Our road network is weak. We need to be able to strengthen our school system to provide the right type of human resources to fill the employment opportunities that will be coming up. We need to develop the infrastructure and keep the enabling environment sound so that we can invite investment. By investing, you reduce the perceived risk and the high cost of business to the American investor. So I think we need both," Mr. Piannim said.
Much remains to be done to boost commercial ties between the United States and Africa. Currently, the African continent accounts for only four-percent of U.S. trade with developing nations.
In French-speaking countries of West Africa, where the O'Neill and Bono visit got much less publicity, the view of Americans remains skeptical, and some say realistic.
A businessman in Ivory Coast's main city, Abidjan, said he is pleased that the United States is making overtures toward Africa. But the businessman, who identified himself only as "Adama," said he believes any aid that comes will not be a giveaway.
He said, "Americans do not help African countries without demanding something in return. For Americans, it is business first." Adama said, "They say 'Do business with us, and we will help you.' On the contrary, the Japanese or the French, they aid Africa with donations and loans. But Americans," he said, "they are interested only in exchanges. Americans are interested in countries that produce oil and gas.
Last week, the Bush administration allowed Ivory Coast to become the 36th Sub-Saharan African nation to become eligible for special trade benefits with the United States, under the U.S. law known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Magazine columnist Samuel Doe Ablordeppey in Accra says it is through engagement that U.S. aid will truly help Africa. "If you teach somebody to fish, you help him more than giving him fish. So in the same way, you teach people to develop skills, the initiative, the capacity to think for themselves and come out with programs. That is more important than every time giving them grants and loans and directing them as to how to use it. So when you know how to use it, then I think the problem will be half-solved," he said.
The effects of the O'Neill-Bono trip will not be known until Secretary O'Neill returns to Washington and presents an assessment of his findings to the administration.
Many Africans hope the visit will at least serve as a first step in building a new partnership between Africa and the United States.