Grading Obama's speech in Ghana

Chris Blattman and Bill Easterly have been blogging their reactions to Obama's speech in Ghana, so heeding the call to join, I shall pipe in.

My overall grade comes out to something of a very unscientific B+. The general themes -- Africa is up to Africans, good governance is paramount, and aid cannot solve nearly everything -- were well placed and on firm footing. The marks off from my side go not for what was said as much as what wasn't. 

1) Missing from this speech was a serious discussion of oil -- and the role and responsibility of the United States as a consumer of African oil from countries such as Nigeria, Angola, and maybe someday, Ghana.

Let's just take Nigeria, since the State Department's top Africa diplomat Johnnie Carson recently told AllAfrica, "Nigeria is, for a variety of reasons, the most important country in sub-Saharan Africa, bar none." Violence in that country has spiraled out of control again in recent months, and civilians have borne the brunt. Environmental destruction in the oil-produing region is rampant, as are corruption, kidnapping, and oil bunkering. The United States (whose diplomats are barred from visiting the region for safety, by the way) has kept up its purchases through it all. It's an ongoing example of what Obama referred to in the colonial past: "the West has often approached Africa as a patron, rather than a partner."

2)  One of the big themes of this speech was building solid institutions and strong democratic governments. That's an important message -- and one that needed saying. The problem is, talk about good governments is already omnipresent in nearly every country I've visited on the continent; the buzzwords fill every conference, every NGO's rhetoric, and even the alleged values of many of the continent's less than democratic politicians. I can hardly criticize here, since I don't know what the answer is. But here more than anywhere else, actions will speak louder than words -- and there's a lot of words.

3) While Obama was, obviously, in Ghana, his comments were heard across the continent as a message not just to that country, but to Africa. Unfortunately, aside from dropping a few big city names and referencing a few success cases, there wasn't much about this. The African Union (AU) presented one potential "in" -- an opportunity that was missed. Of course, it's not for the American president to tell the AU what it should and shouldn't do; but perhaps a mention of the AU's involvement in peacekeeping, its engagement with the ICC, or its relationship with the United States should be have been discussed.

4) There has been some alluding to a revamping of the aid system on the donors' side in recent weeks -- capped by the G8's decision to help fund agricultural development rather than direct food aid. Here, a strong committment from Obama to cut down red tape and inefficiency in the United States' own aid bureaucracy would have been welcome. 

Having said all this, however, I'm still thrilled with the overall points. It's the kind of speech that leaves the audience -- and hopefully the continent -- with momentum. As Obama put it: "history is on the move." 

See the full speech text here

Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images


France wants to keep its day of rest

Frenchmen from both sides of the political aisle are united in support of a day of rest, as President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to open French shops on Sundays faces fierce opposition in the French parliament.

Parliament is due to pass a Bill tomorrow to ease France’s strict trading laws, but hostility to it is so widespread that some MPs in Mr Sarkozy’s own centre-right camp predict that it could unravel before becoming law.

The President’s plan to abolir le dimanche is being resisted by an unlikely coalition of interests, including the centre and left-wing Opposition, the Roman Catholic Church, the trade unions and small shopkeepers who fear losing their existing Sunday business to supermarkets. Up to 60 per cent of the public, according to polls, are also against a scheme that will reverse the century-old right to a day of rest.

The President has made Sunday shopping a personal crusade since he promised it in his 2007 election campaign under his slogan of “work more to earn more”. He pillories France as a backward exception to the rest of Europe and has said that he was ashamed when Michelle Obama wanted to take her daughters shopping in Paris on a Sunday last month — he had to arrange a special opening for her at a Left Bank boutique.

Interestingly, while Sarkozy claims France's laws to be backwards, Sunday shopping is still nonexistant or a novelty in many other European countries:

Although most shopping centres and non-food shops are closed, the French already work more on Sundays than most Europeans. Limited Sunday trading has been allowed in big French cities and tourist areas since 1993. Many other EU countries restrict Sunday shopping more or as much as France. Germany and Austria are only just getting used to the novelty of Saturday afternoon shopping. Belgium, which Mr Sarkozy has cited as a model, allows Sunday trading in only limited areas.

The only EU countries that allow unlimited Sunday opening are the Czech Republic, Sweden and Romania."

The Times of London could not resist adding, "Britain has restrictions but its citizens still manage to put in more work than in any other EU state." Thanks for letting everyone know.