By JEFF KRILLA
U.S. assistance has been a force for positive change in countries all over the world. In Europe and Japan after World War II, U.S. assistance stopped the spread of communism. After the Cold War, U.S. assistance helped to strengthen economies and build stable democratic governments.
This same progress is possible in Africa, and President Bush has proposed increasing aid to Africa by 17 percent -- a substantial amount. Other countries, namely China, also recognize the opportunity in Africa and are working to increase their influence on the continent. Unfortunately for the people of Africa, they are more concerned with increasing access to oil than they are about improving the quality of life in Africa.
China has been actively implementing an "oil for aid" program for years. While American aid is typically targeted to programs such as HIV/AIDS treatment and democracy-building, the Chinese have adopted a no-strings-attached approach, intended to extract the best contracts for Chinese firms.
Since 2000, this has resulted in a 50 percent increase in Chinese trade with the continent, reaching $18.5 billion in 2003. "Forty African counties have trade agreements with China now," explained Li Xiaobing, the deputy director of the West Asian and African Affairs division of the Chinese Trade Ministry. "We are doing a railway project in Nigeria, a Sheraton Hotel in Algeria and a mobile telephone network in Tunisia. We are all over Africa now."
Just recently, I was in a meeting in the new Mozambique parliament building financed entirely by the Chinese government, complete with a massive mural of the Great Wall of China right in the front lobby.
The Chinese government's apparent see-no-evil approach is dangerous to the stability of the region. In their quest to find markets for their goods and to extract natural resources from the region, the Chinese appear willing to overlook ghastly human rights abuses and support authoritarian regimes in exchange for profitable contracts.
Chinese President Hu Jintao recently traveled to Gabon to honor the leadership of President Omar Bongo, a dictator who has become enormously wealthy by bankrupting the nation of its oil. China's interests in the nation are clear: Gabon is an oil exporter with vast opportunity for expansion.
China has also been one of the staunchest defenders of Sudan, at a time when the United States and international human rights organizations have declared the situation in the Darfur region a genocide.
Li explained, "We started in Sudan from scratch. When we started there, they were an oil importer, and now they are an oil exporter. We've built refineries, pipelines and production. ... We import from every source we can get oil from."
It's no wonder that the United Nations, where China has a Security Council veto, has yet to declare the Darfur tragedy a genocide.
Yet as oil exports from sub-Saharan Africa have increased so has the poverty in oil exporting countries. The reason is the corruption in these governments has resulted in little or no investment of oil revenues in programs that would improve the quality of life of their citizens.
Take Nigeria and Angola. Both counties are large oil exporters. Nigeria has banked more than $300 billion in oil revenues in the last 25 years, yet 70 percent of its citizens live on less than $1 a day. In Angola, the U.N. Human Development Index puts life expectancy at 45 years and 68 percent of its citizens are living in poverty. Yet, the country pumps out nearly a million barrels each day and has several billion barrels of in reserve.
In many of these African countries citizens have no mechanism to hold their government leaders accountable for using these revenues to enrich themselves and their cronies. As a result, these corrupt leaders get richer and their citizens get poorer.
The increased U.S. aid can help reverse this devastating trend. U.S. aid will be used to promote transparency and accountability in government, treat and prevent HIV/AIDS, and encourage women's participation in local governance, among other programs that will truly benefit the African people.
With West Africa ripe for further oil exploitation, it is time we focused on development of Africa. President Bush has taken the critical first steps, but we cannot be blind to the harmful effects China can have on the region. America must remain Africa's close ally and lead the charge on enacting real reforms on the continent. The consequences for inaction will be dire, but the reward for increased investment will be profound.
X Jeff Krilla is regional program director for Africa at the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that supports the growth of political and economic freedom, good governance and human rights around the world. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.