* Note: This piece originally ran in US News & World Report on 08/08/2013. *
This month, roughly 25 members of Congress will travel to Sub-Saharan Africa for a wide range of discussions in Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Riding on the heels of President Obama’s trip to the region, U.S. policymakers appear keen to focus their conversations on trade and investment. What they should prioritize, however, is what Obama fastidiously avoided on his trip: an evaluation of existing – and American plans to ramp up – U.S. security assistance across the region. There are three reasons, in particular, why it behooves members to be mindful of this mission.
First, the efficacy and return-on-investment of costly counterterrorism operations has never been adequately measured. The U.S. spends more than $25 billion annually on security assistance to the military and paramilitary forces of foreign countries, as a mechanism of U.S. counterterrorism aimed broadly at improving the “security capacity” of recipient states.
While security assistance has been a component of the U.S. foreign policy toolkit for nearly half a century – from Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, to anti-narcotics training in Honduras throughout the 1980s, to recent efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali and Libya – it has repeatedly done more damage than good to stability, peace, and US perception.
U.S. security assistance spending has never been audited or overseen in any coordinated way, allowing U.S.-made and U.S.-delivered tear gas canisters to be used against civilians peacefully protesting in Egypt and rape, torture and abuse to be committed regularly in Somalia by U.S.-backed Kenyan military troops. Moreover, a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that countries receiving the largest amount of U.S. security assistance are often those with the least favorable perceptions of America. Clearly, some rethinking is required.
Second, these members of Congress who are considering new investments in trade and economic development will ultimately see deals backfire if they are not properly coordinated with security assistance reform. The U.S. spent more than $1.5 billion on security assistance to the Congo since 2009, enabling a military regime to commit human rights abuses upon its civilians, making the region more hostile to humanitarian workers and more resentful to U.S. engagements. This is not uncommon. Conflict-affected countries that have yet to achieve the Millennium Development Goals are often victim of repeated cycles of conflict.
Finally, security assistance must be more consistent with Obama’s commitment to an open government. The hypocrisies plaguing U.S. security assistance policies are not lost on those impacted by the rapes, murders and assaults by U.S.-trained soldiers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the civilians threatened by the U.S.-funded military coup in Mali, or the imprisoned journalists in Ethiopia whose guards are protected by U.S. foreign military financing. As Sub-Saharan African economies grow increasingly robust and interconnected, the U.S. must be prepared to stand, ethically and transparently, by its policies.
Despite serious concerns with security assistance and the urgent need for reform, Congress continues to fund all of this with little oversight. This is remarkable given how many American taxpayer dollars are spent on these non-transparent programs. Last month, amidst the noise of political gridlock in Washington, bipartisan members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees agreed to fully fund the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget request for U.S. security assistance in their respective State and Foreign Operations appropriations bills (see House and Senate versions).
Efforts to get transparency and oversight for these programs, however, haven’t been so easy. As these elected officials travel to Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August, we hope they will engage in conversations around the emerging patterns and needed reforms of U.S. security assistance in Africa and return home committed to establishing mechanisms of accountability, measurability and reform for security assistance.
This is a unique opportunity to reclaim, for an increasingly skeptical contingent of civil society on the African continent, the faith and good intentions of U.S. engagement.
Will the senators and representatives get it right? Let’s hope so, since it’s a rare moment for members of Congress to travel to Sub-Saharan Africa in the first place. This likely won’t happen again anytime soon, so let’s make the most of it now. The people of Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are waiting and wanting something more and something meaningful from America. It is about time that we listened to them.