The Magazine

Dinner Under the Tent

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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We accept that a certain degree of pomp and circumstance is part of having a presidency, and, with a tolerance born of Washington’s summer languor, we can even find a certain pleasure in the extravaganza with which President Obama feted the African leaders who were in town for a few days last week to meet high-powered CEOs tempted by the chance to find investment opportunities.

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Africa Leaders dinner on the South Lawn of the White House

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As few of Obama’s guests are known for anything other than misgovernance, kleptocracy, and extravagant self-regard, it is true the only way to make a deal is to go straight to the one individual in a position to decide whether there is anything in it for him, or what it might take to persuade him that there is. The 51 solons and distinguished guests were thus herded into a large tent on the White House lawn to accommodate the unusually large party for a dinner putatively mixing African and American specialties with some herbs from the first lady’s own garden. 

The informal Africa lobby consists mainly of federal bureaucrats whose own well-being depends on the continuation of the transnational welfare system called foreign aid, and it likes to tout the continent’s progress over the past decade or so as a consequence of its own make-work programs. There indeed is a new middle class in such countries as Ethiopia that until recent memory were known for the PR value they represent to humanitarian organizations, themselves recipients of federal as well as private largesse. There has been noticeable wealth production in Ethiopia and other African nations, and it has been entirely outside, one should really say despite, the aid sector, which simply grafts costs onto the enterprise sector with an administrative class both American and African that not only siphons off much of the manna but gets in the way of Africans who are actually producing wealth.

Thus we were not surprised to see there was no mention of George Ayittey on the guest list, which included Africa and Obama groupies as well as businessmen with a nose for handouts. Ayittey, a Ghanaian champion of the private sector and the political and civil liberties that are inseparable from it, is a well-known critic of the corruption that seems intrinsic to both the “big man” regimes and the “culture of dependence” they foster and that is perpetuated by the foreign aid industry. 

The sums bandied about during the three-day affair, some $14 billion from private firms like Coca-Cola and $33 billion from the feds, would leave Ayittey shaking his head with a sense of déjà vu. The numbers, regardless of whether they represent anything more than bean-counting fantasies, add up to less than what evaporates annually from international aid and investment. No such dark thoughts for USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, who in the wake of this latest Washington show released a statement redolent of Ceausescu’s Romania: “Under the leadership of President Obama we have pioneered a new model of development that is transforming Africa and accelerating Africa’s impressive growth and potential.”

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