Brian Klaas: Africa’s Catch-22

Some astute observations in a new article on Good Governance Africa:

Conflict in Africa can result in economic devastation that lingers on far beyond the last crack of gunfire, because aid and trade matter more to the continent’s economic growth than they do to others. The loss of international partners—and foreign direct investment in particular—can drain an African country of its economic lifeblood for years after a coup d’état or a civil war. […]

In research recently conducted for One Earth Future, an anti-conflict think tank based in Denver, Colorado, Jay Ulfelder and this author found evidence that the reactions of Western governments to conflict in other countries can create self-fulfilling economic prophecies. In some cases at least, there is evidence that the economic fortunes of a country after a coup, civil war, or an unconstitutional change of government may be largely dictated by international actors—particularly major powers in the West.[…]

These diplomatic responses are not random. They are carefully constructed with reference to geopolitics. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa is in the geopolitical periphery. As a result, some countries outside of the region may receive more favorable diplomatic treatment in the wake of political violence, thereby ensuring continuity or even an increase in foreign direct investment. Government signals provide an important cue to investors, particularly when sanctions are involved—as they often are—with post-conflict, and particularly, post-coup governments.

I have for some time now arrived at the conclusion that – with very few exceptions – foreign policy responses to crises are made up on the fly, in a high-stress and low-information environment based on historical and personal experiences and reference points. African countries are more at the receiving end of this than any other, because western diplomats and bureaucrats are less likely to be experts on the issues that matter to the continent than for any other region.

There are two basic solutions to this: Either resist the urge to react instantaneously to everything that is happening in the world, if you come to the conclusion that your government doesn’t have the institutional capacity and knowledge to formulate a response on short notice. But this goes against the basic instinct of state departments and foreign ministers everywhere and wouldn’t necessarily be desirable in the first place.

Or governments decide to purposefully and diligently invest in developing the expertise and personnel necessary to make informed and coherent choices, even under pressure. That wouldn’t come cheap, but would probably be cheaper than dealing with the fallout of a botched crisis response.