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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

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