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Yesterday President George Bush reported on his recent trip to Africa to members of the diplomatic corps, NGOs, and development policymakers at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. at an event hosted by the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation. President Bush relayed the details of what he called his "most exciting, exhilarating and uplifting trip" since becoming president and showed slides from his visits to Benin, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana and Liberia. He argued Americans should be "mighty proud" of the work the U.S. is doing in Africa and made a final plea for Congress to fully and promptly fund U.S. development programs and for presidential candidates of both parties to make engagement with Africa an enduring priority of the United States. (See full remarks and video)

As the president narrated the photos with anecdotes from his trip, there were mentions of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief PEPFAR), malaria initiative and the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) amidst commentary on the photos of the stuffed lion given to him by Tanzanian President Kikwete (Bush worried that his dog Barney might be "slightly intimidated"); the stylish dresses worn by several Tanzanian women (bearing images of George Bush); and how happy their audience in Accra was to see him (but, according to Bush, "even more excited to see [their] surprise guest, reigning American Idol Jordin Sparks"). All this made for an entertaining presentation but a major policy speech it was not.

When a U.S. president travels to Africa and then takes time to deliver a speech devoted entirely to U.S. relations with the continent, it somehow seems churlish to be critical. After all, this sort of prioritization of development issues is exactly what the development community would like to see.

Still, I suspect that, like me, many of the 400+ people who attended the speech left feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, it's great that the president is talking about global development, the U.S. relationship with Africa and his signature assistance programs. No one doubts that these programs have significantly increased the flow of resources to Africa and provided opportunity for experiments with innovative delivery mechanisms. On the other hand, there was little if any new information or agenda and there was something vaguely unsettling about the broad brushstrokes and glossy pictures. Listening to the speech felt like looking over vacation photos with the president. I sensed that much of the audience, who were either from Africa or know the continent very well, appreciated the president's attention but had been hoping for something more: a coherent vision of the reasons for U.S.engagement with Africa and the development process more broadly, and a clear sense of what should be done next.

Though few new announcements came out of the presentation, President Bush iterated his administration's calls for Congress to:

Reauthorize PEPFAR and double the initial commitment to $30 billion over the next 5 years; Provide 5.2 million new insecticide-treated bednets to prevent malaria; Offer $100 million for "African nations willing to step forward and serve the cause of peace in Darfur"; Spend $350 million to target neglected tropical diseases like river blindness and hookworm; and Ensure full and prompt funding for U.S. development programs (in the FY09 budget).

President Bush also said that it is in the U.S. interest to "open up trade and deal with subsidies and trade-distorting tariffs" and that he is "firmly dedicated to coming up with a successful Doha Round to make trade freer and fairer." He noted that Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had come to the U.S. for some of her schooling and that "the more people who come to get educated in the United States from abroad, the better off our country will be." Again, while I am thrilled to see U.S. trade and migration policies raised as policies affecting global development, I was disappointed that there seemed to be an assumption that all our aid, trade, migration and other policies related to Africa automatically add up to one big good. In reality, the U.S. gives some assistance with one hand, takes some back with some trade policies, and does a little of both with migration policies. I left wanting a little more vision of how to make U.S. foreign assistance, trade, migration and other policies compliment each other and add up to a real development strategy.

For me it comes down to a question of how much expertise, nuance and leadership it is reasonable for an audience of development policymakers and practitioners to expect from a presidential speech. President Bush deserves credit for his work on Africa, the new programs created during his administration, and for raising other rich world policies like trade and migration that affect developing countries. But just as President Bush urged presidential candidates of both parties to make engagement with Africa an enduring priority of the United States, I urge them to take advantage of an audience that is eager for more substantive leadership on the complex and competing development policy issues, and for a more comprehensive approach to U.S. foreign assistance.

Clearly there are readers out there who are from, have lived in, or have worked with the African countries President Bush visited. You are doing the real work beyond the red carpets and greetings that accompany a presidential trip. How would you like to see the next American president make engagement with Africa and global development an enduring priority of the United States?

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.