Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

America's Debt to Africa

James Skillen


April 13, 1998

At the beginning of his recent trip to Africa, President Clinton visited the infamous slave port in Ghana and apologized for America's past complicity in the slave trade. Actually, the best apology the United States ever made for slavery was to end it.

Now the question is whether we have any current debts to Africa.

There are at least two.

Before Clinton left for Africa, the House of Representatives passed the U.S.-African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers hope of prosperity to African countries through freer access to American markets. Many in the House are convinced that some of our past aid policies put money in the hands of dictators and fostered dependency and indebtedness instead of helping the people become self-sustaining. "Trade, not aid" is the new American mantra, which is supposed to serve as both an apology for past policy errors and a promise of a more prosperous future.

Will this shift in policy be sufficient to pay our debt of having foisted bad policies on Africa in the recent past? Not if the African countries remain unable to benefit from trade because their financial debts to foreign countries and banks, incurred under earlier policies, remain so huge they can't get out from under them. And not if the strings attached to the new policies push some countries even further into difficulty. Many, if not most, African countries are not currently in a position to export their goods to American markets at a price high enough to pay both for the imports they need to develop their economies and for the debts they incurred earlier.

Let's draw an analogy. By ending slavery in the United States we admitted that slavery was an unjust economic system because it put the fruits of slave labor almost entirely in the hands of the slave owners and kept the slaves permanently dependent. Everyone, we decided, should be free to benefit from the fruits of one's own labors in an open market. Yet we all know that setting the slaves free did not by itself establish a level playing field. They lacked capital resources, education, and experience in a free market. Ending slavery was merely a first step toward paying America's debt to the slaves. On this analogy, promoting a freer trade market for African countries is only a first step toward a just international economic order.

This brings us to our second debt. Helping African economic development through trade requires political conditions that allow people to benefit from the prosperity trade might bring. It is time for Congress and the president to connect trade policy more closely with relevant political reforms needed in different African countries.

An analogy to America's post-slavery society can again be drawn. The ending of slavery was not sufficient for black Americans because political control (which also embraced the economy and education) remained in the hands of white Americans. Voting and other civil rights reforms were essential if blacks were to become full and equal participants in society.

If we look again at Africa, we can see that Nigeria, for example, has plenty of oil to export and can benefit handsomely from free trade. However, Nigeria's military government controls oil production and sales in ways that offer relatively little benefit to a vast number of its people. The United States may not be in a position to force Nigeria's military government to become just and democratic. But we should do what we can through economic and others means (as we did with South Africa under apartheid) to advance political reforms.

We owe Africa more than Clinton admitted.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”