Letter From Tanzania II: A Visit to the US Embassy

Letter From Tanzania II: A Visit to the US Embassy

Letter From Tanzania II: A Visit to the US Embassy

The country needs more foreign aid to develop infrastructure amid the effects of climate change, but don’t look to the private sector.


Soldiers present the colors during an Independence Day celebration at the US embassy in Tanzania. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)

This is the second of several blog posts written from Dar es Salaam and Morogoro, Tanzania. I’m visiting Tanzania thanks to CARE USA, which has paid for my trip with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its purpose, for me at least, is to explore one country’s need for humanitarian aid and development assistance and to examine America’s political will and commitment to deliver on its promises.

It’s evident, even after a couple of days in Tanzania, that there’s an enormous gap between what the country needs to develop and what aid it’s likely to get. Unless something changes in Washington, and in a few other capitals around the world, the best-case future for Tanzania is a prolonged struggle to develop itself lasting many, many decades, and the worst case is stagnation exacerbated by the ravages of droughts, floods and storms that arise from the effects of climate change.

Despite successes here and there, and there are some, humanitarian and development aid from the United States is not up to the task.

That’s the depressing conclusion from a visit to the US embassy in Dar es Salaam this morning, where Ambassador Alfonso Lenhardt and his team of aides from the US Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the State Department’s Feed the Future program and others outlined the shape of the American contribution, so far, to Tanzania’s economic and development struggle.

Things are getting better, Ambassador Lenhardt told The Nation. “We see it every day, in the lives of the people being saved,” he says. “I’m pleased, and I’ll be a little emotional, or sobby, about it, but I’m pleased to be part of it.”

Unfortunately, whether because of his own personal inclination or because of marching orders from Washington—and probably both—the ambassador is placing far too many of his aid-and-development eggs in the basket of the profit-seeking, self-interested private sector, i.e., American corporations. Nearly every time I pressed him on what the United States could or should do to meet the challenges here, Ambassador Lenhardt fell back onto the argument that the private sector can do it. In fact, they can’t.

Not that Lenhardt is against the idea of Washington adding more money to its foreign aid budget. (That budget, which has been trending downwards for several decades, reportedly stands at just 0.17 percent of the US GNP, far short of the reputed goal for members of the developed world, namely, 0.7 percent, or four times greater than it is currently.) If the White House and Congress decide to up the ante, says Lenhardt, he’s all for it having more money sent his way. “If it came here to Dar es Salaam, we’ll put it use,” he says.

Until then, one of his main activities is trying to persuade American firms to invest in Tanzania’s economy. So far, they’re not buying. And it’s no wonder: With a crumbling infrastructure, unreliable water and electric power supplies, a clogged port, a workforce whose education levels are far, far below the needs of twenty-first-century technology and whose health and social welfare level is poor, who’d want to invest in Tanzania in search of a profit? “If they have to choose between building a plant in Vietnam, where the power and water supply is generally reliable, or Tanzania, where it isn’t, is it a surprise that they’d choose Vietnam?” says a US official here, privately.

More worryingly, Ambassador Lenhardt insists that before foreign firms will look favorably on Tanzania, the country has to think about “getting rid of some of the vestiges, the shackles, perhaps, of socialism.”

That, of course, has echoes of the American adventure in Iraq after 2003, when Donald Rumsfeld’s less-than-whiz kids bumbled into Baghdad and tried to convince the Iraqis—the new ones, mind you, who’d been installed by Rumsfeld’s own troops—to privatize everything, including their oil industry.

In fact, of course, Tanzania—like many countries in the developing world—has been steadily privatizing its industries for decades. A Tanzanian official pointed out that the textile industry, once state-owned, is no longer, and the same goes, to a greater or lesser extent, for mining, steel, banking and agriculture. Now, apparently with nudges from the US embassy, the Tanzanian government is taking further steps in that direction. According to Lenhardt, in 2010, the government here passed a ”public-private partnership act” designed to further open up Tanzania to free enterprise, and one of his aides pointed out that thanks to recently enacted legislation here, the state-owned electric utility, the Tanzania Electric Supply Co. (Tanesco), can now partner with the private sector.

“Tanzanians have to adjust, get out of what they’ve been used to,” he says. “Tanzania, as you know, started out as a socialist country. Julius Nyerere [Tanzania’s founder and independence leader], they call him Mwalimu, ‘teacher,’ he embraced socialism in 1962, and he thought that was a great model.”

The key, says Lenhardt, is “helping the Tanzanians to help themselves,” and that means “enlisting…the private sector. “ He says:

I’ve spent a lot of time putting out the welcome sign, [saying] “Tanzania is open for business.” A lot of the heavy lifting is going to have to come from the private sector.… And the Tanzanians are looking to the private sector now, getting rid of some of the vestiges, the shackles, perhaps, of socialism, and rethinking how they come at things, so that the private sector becomes an active partner as opposed to, “Well, we suspect these guys are here for ulterior motives and not necessarily for our benefit.”

Gently, I pointed out that American firms are flocking to China, which is a socialist country (“a Communist country,” Lenhardt corrects me), but they are not flocking to Tanzania, and perhaps that has something to do with the fact that China boasts an impressive infrastructure and a well-educated work force.

Fact is, the United States, and other donor countries (including China), ought to partner together to build Tanzania’s ports, roads, railways, airports, water and power supply, and perhaps throw in some schools and hospitals and the like, so Tanzania can reach its takeoff point. Maybe, perhaps, American firms might invest in Tanzania then—or, alternatively, if the Tanzanian government decides to bolster its state-owned industrial sector instead, it’ll go that way.

At present, though Tanzania has outlined a long-term, strategic development plan, it doesn’t have the resources to fund it. President Jakaya Kikwete, says a US official speaking on background, has been reduced to taking the country’s long list of priority projects and then grabbing this way and that way to find donor countries ready and willing to finance them. One source of such funding is the US Millennium Challenge Corporation, which has provided Tanzania with a $698 million infrastructure-building contract. One of those projects—and there are several—involved laying an electric cable from the Tanzanian mainland to the island of Zanzibar, and offshore tourist mecca that is also a politically charged component of the union that formed Tanzania in the 1960s. It’s a true success story. But Tanzania needs dozens of those, or hundreds.

The private sector isn’t stepping up anytime soon for those sorts of projects. That’ll take big bucks, and it’s anyone’s guess whether President Obama has the guts and the political capital that would be needed to prod Washington’s creaky machinery, already skeptical about foreign aid in general, to give Ambassador Lenhardt—and several dozen other ambassadors—the money he says that he could use.

Will Barack Obama fulfill his promises to address poverty and disease around the world? Read Robert Dreyfuss’s first letter from Tanzania.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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