After decades of Cold War-era proxy conflicts between the United States and Soviet Union that ravaged nations across the developing world, an unofficial consensus emerged: Great power rivalries are not conducive for democratization.
A glimpse into contemporary sub-Saharan Africa suggests that this consensus may be wrong.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and United States jockeyed for ideological supremacy across the African continent. Their struggle saw the ascendancy of ruthless autocrats, the perpetuation of undemocratic rule, and a proliferation of protracted civil wars. Following the dissolution of the USSR and the emergence of American unilateralism in the early 1990s, many scholars believed African nations could finally democratize. Some countries did. Many did not.
For many policymakers, when the bitter bilateral rivalry came to an end, so too did sub-Saharan Africa’s importance to the American government. Beginning in the late 1980s, the size of US aid packages began declining precipitously. After nearly a century of imperialism and neocolonialism hallmarked by the forcible stunting of African political systems and a failure to construct suitable infrastructure, many nations were woefully unprepared for the power vacuum created by the abrupt departure of the US, USSR, and former colonial powers. Contrary to earlier hopes of stability and democratization, the sudden exodus of international entities facilitated a rapid increase in violence across the continent. In the 1980s, there were approximately 13 major conflicts in Africa. In the 1990s, that number jumped to 25. With the exception of a brief intervention in Somalia, the United States largely removed itself from the continent’s affairs.
Then the aid began increasing. In 2006, US aid to sub-Saharan Africa was $1.1 billion USD. By 2009, that figure stood at $8.2 billion USD.
What triggered this massive spike in American investment?
On the surface, many believe the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and the subsequent post-9/11 war on terror necessitated greater US involvement in the continent, which was rapidly becoming a hotbed of terror networks. That argument is true; American military presence has considerably increased in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa since 2001. The only problem with that explanation is that building bases and training soldiers comes from the Defense budget and cannot be counted as foreign aid.
So, if not security-related, then why the near quadrupling of aid to Africa in a three-year period?
Put simply: China.
During the lull of American interest in Africa during the 1990s, China was shocking the Western world with its astounding economic surge. Between 1990 and 1992 alone, China’s annual GDP growth skyrocketed from 3.9% to 14.2%. A nation that for much of the 20th Century had closed itself off to the world was beginning to realize it wielded enormous geopolitical authority. By the mid-2000s, the Communist Party decided it was time to exert some of that authority, and how better to signal your arrival as a global superpower than the distribution of foreign aid?
Though China does not disclose its expenditures, researchers at New York University discovered that Chinese foreign aidto Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa rose from around $1 billion USD in 2002 to approximately $27.5 billion USD in 2006. Less than a year after those findings were released, US aid to Africa began its dramatic ascent.
Since the 2000s, foreign aid packages to sub-Saharan Africa from the United States and China have continued to grow. Despite President Donald’s Trump initial intention to decrease aid expenditures, assistance to Africa remained stable under his administration. In China, President Xi Jinping launched several investment initiatives that, while not technically considered aid by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), will have provided around $1 trillion USD in investments and loans by 2025. Despite their divergent approaches to aid, Beijing and Washington’s growing investment in Africa is undeniably indicative of the superpowers’ emerging bilateral rivalry. Unlike the Cold War however, this global contention is waged with “soft power”. Aid has replaced ammunition in this new East-West struggle.
So how does this new great power rivalry lead to democratization in sub-Saharan Africa?
There are three key reasons why increased aid can help African nations successfully democratize: 1) “Democracy Aid” decreases the likelihood that transitioning democracies experience domestic violence; 2) Democratic conditionalities and threats of aid reduction associated with traditional development packages can improve electoral legitimacy; 3) Aid increases political stability that subsequently facilitates economic growth, which in turn increases a nation’s democratic viability.
The first reason great power rivalry-induced aid benefits democratization in sub-Saharan Africa, involving “democracy aid”, was originally proposed by political scientists Burcu Savun and Daniel Tirone at the University of Pittsburgh; the term applies to any foreign aid designated for “democracy promotion programs”, that can involve bolstering judiciaries, legislatures, independent media, or civic groups. While still dwarfed in size by development aid, democracy aid has become an increasingly prevalent facet of US assistance packages. Savun and Tirone argue that well-funded institutions in government and civil society are better equipped to mitigate violence during periods of democratic transition. Currently, there are fourteen African nations that could accurately be described as working towards, imminently transitioning to, or improving upon democracy, according to data from Freedom House. Several of those nations are among the largest recipients of foreign aid, including Ethiopia and Angola. Furthermore, virtually every one of those countries has experienced inhibited democratic transitions mired by internal violence. Escalation of the Sino-American aid war, and the inherent increase of democracy aid, could help bolster those fourteen nations’ electoral institutions to prevent the bloodshed that has beleaguered previous attempts at democratization.
Conversely, the second benefit of increased aid for sub-Saharan African democracies are the conditionalities associated with development aid and investments by donor nations. Policy concessions and stipulations involving the improvement of civil and democratic institutions are a longstanding component of American foreign aid. According to a United Nations’ report, threats of cancelling or rescinding aid on the basis of undemocratic actions by recipient nations can be highly effective in ensuring that executives adhere to constitutional term limits, competitive multiparty elections are held regularly, and freedoms for local media outlets are safeguarded. Admittedly, the Chinese aid model rarely includes moral stipulations. However, nations receiving high levels of Chinese investment can almost always expect a reciprocal increase in US aid, which normally includes the conditionalities presented in the UN report; that back-and-forth cycle of aid and investment ensures African nations receive twice the economic benefits while still largely adhering to pre-ordained democratic benchmarks.
The final, and most convoluted, benefit of the Sino-American aid war is predicated on the work of sociologists Seymour Lipset and Yi Feng. Feng determined that political stability, rather than specific institutions, was most responsible for ensuring economic growth. As noted in Savun and Tirone’s work, high levels of democracy aid generally encourage stability during democratic transitions; therefore, excluding extenuating circumstances involving health or environmental issues, that relationship means that nations can experience dramatic economic growth while they are democratizing. Traditionally, concerns over violence hinder African economies during transitional periods, creating a cycle of financial depression and instability; with the enormous sums generated by the aid war, countries can escape that pattern of self-perpetuating destitution. Lipset’s work argued that “economic development is a prerequisite for democracy”. While the causality behind that argument is certainly debatable, it is undeniable that the vast majority of the world’s stable, prosperous nations are democracies. In combining the two scholars’ work, it would appear that the political stability generated by increased aid translates to economic growth, which eventually creates a society conducive to, if not one demanding, democratization.
As the Sino-American great power rivalry still remains in its infancy, the global implications of the new East-West struggle may not emerge for years. However, based on precedent and scholarly work, it appears that in the same way the Cold War encouraged autocracies in sub-Saharan Africa, the new Aid War could usher in a wave of democratization.
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