Question: Is Obama better than Bush?
Answer: It depends how you like your imperialism – with a white face or a black one.
by Stephen Gowans
US president Barack Obama’s speech at Accra, Ghana on July 11, 2009 was equal parts jaw dropping hypocrisy, outright fiction, sound advice for Africans if taken literally, and advocacy for institutions ideally suited to capital accumulation in Africa by Western investors. Africans should heed the US president’s call to embrace the idea that Africa’s future is up to Africans (and Africans alone) and to build their own nations, but the path Obama proposes, if followed, would condemn Africa to continued underdevelopment and perpetual dependence on the West.
It should come as a surprise to no one but the weakly naïve and politically untutored that the role of the US president in Africa is to promote and defend the interests of the United States, not Africans. This is so, even if the US president shares the skin color of Africa’s majority. What may not be so apparent, but which is true nevertheless, is that Obama represents the interests of his country’s hereditary capitalist families, banks, corporations and wealthy investors whose resources and backing have brought him to power, and in whose interests the logic of imperialism compels him to act. It is Obama’s goal as representative of US capital to open, and keep open, Africa’s vast resources to exploitation by Western, and particularly US, capital without impediments of corruption, war and pan-African, nationalist or socialist projects of independent development getting in the way. His color and African heritage give Obama a leg up on a white president, allowing him to immediately connect with an African audience. But his message is no less racist, imperialist and informed by the interests of Wall Street than that of his white predecessors.
Obama used his speech to sell two fictions: (1) that Africa’s underdevelopment has nothing to do with colonialism and neo-colonialism, but is rooted in corruption, tribalism and Africans’ blaming others for their poverty; and (2) that Africa’s development depends on adopting institutions that allow foreign capital unfettered access to African markets and resources.
“It is easy to point fingers, and to pin the blame for (Africa’s) problems on others,” said Obama, explaining that,
“Countries like Kenya, which had a per capita economy larger than South Korea’s when I was born, have been badly outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent. In many places, the hope of my (Kenyan) father’s generation gave way to cynicism, even despair.”
During the years of its rapid economic growth, south Korea did not follow the development path Obama prescribes for Africa today. Instead, it built five-year industrial plans that singled out industries the government would nurture through tariff protection, subsidies and government support. Foreign currencies necessary for importing machinery and industrial inputs were accumulated through foreign exchange controls, whose violation was punishable by death. 
The government completely regulated foreign investment, welcoming it in some areas but banning it in others. Attitudes toward intellectual property were lax, with south Korean businesses encouraged to reverse engineer Western technology and pirate the West’s patented products.
This approach to development was the rule, not the exception. Virtually every developed country has followed the same path, using tariffs, subsidies and discrimination against foreign investors, to industrialize.
The first countries to adopt free trade, apart from Britain, where weak countries on whom free trade was imposed by colonial masters. The free trade was typically one-way. Countries in Asia and Africa barely grew economically during the period of colonial rule, while Western Europe – the beneficiary of one-way free trade — grew rapidly. Latin America also grew strongly, but at the time, followed an import-substitution model, not the open markets model industrial powerhouses favored because it favored them.
Under the rule of Britain, the United States was treated much as African countries are today. It was denied the use of tariffs to protect its fledgling industry. It was barred from exporting products that competed with British products. And it was encouraged, through subsides, to concentrate on agriculture. Manufacturing industry was to be left to the British.
Alexander Hamilton rejected this model, creating an infant industry program that allowed the United States to industrialize rapidly. Hamilton’s program — which remained the basis of US economic policy up to World War II — created the highest tariff barriers in the world. US federal mining laws restricted ownership of mines to US citizens and businesses incorporated in the United States. (When Zimbabwe’s government developed legislation to require majority Zimbabwean ownership of the country’s resources, along the lines of earlier US policy, it was denounced for grossly mismanaging the economy.)
Other developed countries also used foreign ownership restrictions to help them industrialize. Prior to 1962, Japan restricted foreign ownership to 49 percent and banned it altogether in certain industries.
In his speech, Obama created the impression that south Korea developed rapidly because it followed policies the World Bank endorses, while at the same time Africa stagnated, because it didn’t. This is doubly false. Not only did south Korea not follow World Bank policies – in fact, it did the very opposite – Africa has been practically run by the IMF and World Bank since the 1980s. Under their guidance, African living standards have worsened, not improved. Over the same period, the Western world’s financial elite – which exercises enormous influence over the World Bank and IMF – saw its wealth expand greatly.
Corruption, Obama argues, and not the legacy of colonialism, has also held Africa back. There must, he insists, be “concrete solutions to corruption like forensic accounting, automating services, strengthening hot lines and protecting whistle-blowers to advance transparency and accountability.”
These measures are desirable. But spectacular corruption in Indonesia, Italy, Japan, south Korea, Taiwan and China didn’t hold these countries back. The critical issue in development isn’t whether corruption happens, but whether the dirty money stays in the country.