“Redesigning U.S. Assistance to Africa in the Post-Pandemic Era” — Mark Wentling (Togo)

November 2020

by Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967-69 & Togo 1970-73)

Key Points

It is my opinion that the interest of the United States is best served in most African countries by improving the basic welfare of their people. The effectiveness of U.S. aid in Africa can be enhanced by focusing on the least developed countries. Helping address basic human needs, notably in the areas of education and health, should be top priority, especially the education of girls. Increasing agricultural production to improve nutritional health also deserves greater attention. Assistance funding needs to be stable and independent of political and diplomatic considerations. The composition of U.S. overseas missions and cumbersome bureaucratic processes must be revised to permit the effective and timely implementation of this new strategy. These changes are necessary to raise hopes for a better future for millions of Africans and to strengthen the role of the U.S. in Africa.


As someone who has worked on development assistance programs in Africa for over 40 years, I strongly believe the U.S. can be more effective in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries by making profound changes in the way it uses its limited resources to deliver assistance. Decades of work with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), the Peace Corps and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) tell me that in order to make our resources achieve long lasting results, the U.S. needs to narrow its focus and concentrate its assistance on those countries which can best use it to improve the quality of life of its people.

The first step is to decide in which countries the U.S. should be working and why. The U.S. must focus its resources on fewer countries and in a handful of sectors. By spreading limited resources thinly over the continent, the U.S. risks achieving little or nothing.

It is difficult for me to admit that most of the assistance projects I have been involved with over the past several decades in SSA have had no-to-little lasting impact on improving the lives of Africans. Half of SSA’s population still lives in extreme poverty. And the dreadful negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will make things worse. Already, most of the world’s poverty is concentrated in SSA.

The population of SSA has almost doubled since 2005 and now stands at over 1.3 billion. A rule of thumb is that for any country to prosper, the economic growth rate, adjusted for inflation, must be consistently at least two percent higher than the population growth rate for a decade or more. Even the best performing SSA countries fail in this regard. It is sad to note that many SSA countries have received billions of dollars in U.S. aid since 1960, yet remain among the poorest countries on the planet

Assist First the Poorest Countries

A new SSA assistance strategy would focus on specific countries, or parts thereof, as well as on designated sectors. U.S assistance should give priority to the poorest countries, helping satisfy the basic human needs and rights of their most vulnerable population groups.

A pastoralist’s camp in north of Ouallam, Niger, 2014. Niger is ranked last on the UN’s 2019 Human Development Index of 189 countries. Photo by Mark Wentling


 The United Nations Development Program’s annual Human Development Index can be used to identify the countries needing the most help. Thirty of the 35 countries categorized in 2019 in the lowest ranks of this index, which includes 189 countries, are in SSA. The bottom dozen countries on this index are all in SSA. These twelve countries and others classified in this low human development category should be the beneficiaries of future U.S. aid to Africa.

In addition, I recommend the elaboration of a comprehensive risk profile ranking of SSA countries that can be used to make decisions on how much funding the U.S. government should commit to provide to an individual country over the long term. These decisions should be based on human needs and not on other U.S. foreign policy objectives that do not relate to improving the quality of life of Africans.

If any of these countries are to see their human development indices rise, the majority of their people must have adequate levels of health care and education. Health care includes family planning, nutrition, sanitation and water. Education includes formal, non-formal, vocational and training needed to respond to the job market. No country has ever advanced until the majority of its population has benefited from a quality primary school education. It is also difficult for a country to advance while a high percentage of its population is malnourished and in poor health.

Give Priority to the Advancement of Girls and Women

The best use of assistance funds is supporting the advancement of girls and women so that societies are more equitable. Investing in girls’ education should be at the top of the list of assistance funding options. The energies and talents of women are the greatest untapped resource in many SSA countries. As long as women are held back, the continent cannot advance.

Perhaps the best assistance approach is focused on ensuring healthy pregnancies. Far too many babies are born in SSA to anemic young mothers and, consequently, many of these newborn babies are of a low birth weight (below 2.5 kilograms).

Women waiting for food distribution in Guidan Roumdji, Niger, 2005. Photo by Mark Wentling


A large percentage of children under five years of age in SSA are under nourished. Malnutrition is the main underlying cause of death for this age group, and many who survive are stunted, a permanent condition that results in physical and cognitive impairment.

Overcoming this nutrition deficit requires improving dietary diversity. Having sufficient food of the quality and variety required to assure a good nutritional level for every person needs to be a high priority. Sadly, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the number of people in the region who continue to suffer from hunger is actually increasing.

The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, pest outbreaks, violent extremism, seasonal flooding and severe droughts will worsen the region’s food deficit and require emergency attention. Nevertheless, any work to improve agricultural production should have as its core goal providing additional food that is also more nutritious.

While all SSA countries have many other pressing needs, the U.S. should refrain from trying to address all of them. Other donors, bilateral and multi-lateral, are often times in a better position to assist host governments with these needs. Important development issues related to good governance, the infrastructure deficit, rapid urbanization (slum expansion), trade, transportation, electrical power, debt relief, and many more, should be left to other donors in order to avoid the thinning of U.S. aid.

Focus on Basic Human Needs

The U.S. must focus on improving basic human needs (BHN) if lasting results are to be achieved. Doing this includes reinforcing and expanding capacity building efforts already afoot in the health and education sectors. In this regard, the long-term training in the U.S. of African college graduates should be revived and ramped up. BHN approach should focus on rural areas, with an eye on stemming the inordinate flow of people to towns and cities.

Most of the hundreds of millions of rural inhabitants of SSA are members of subsistence farm families that in a good rainfall year may produce enough to satisfy the food needs of their own household. However, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the average farm size in SSA is around six acres, and that size shrinks with each successive generation. Farm size in Africa is a fraction of the average size of farms in other regions of the world. Clearly, the future of small-scale farming in SSA is not promising.

To improve this discouraging situation, the U.S. might also choose to focus on land tenure reform and other key actions that make farming in SSA more attractive, thereby reducing the rural exodus, making it so African youth see farming as a lifetime vocation. Otherwise, young men are more likely to be attracted to criminal and terrorist groups, or to go on risky migratory journeys. As things stand now, the FAO reports that the average age of the African farmer is increasing while food imports are rising to unaffordable levels.

Meanwhile, the youthful structure of Africa’s fast-growing population is worrisome. The median age in SSA is about 19 years (versus 39 in the U.S.). This “youth bulge” is of considerable concern and the failure of SSA to achieve a demographic dividend will weigh heavily on the continent’s future. Among other needs, creating jobs for the millions of African youth entering the workforce appears to be an insurmountable challenge. If it is true that job creation is the real litmus test of development, high and growing unemployment in SSA is alarming.

It is also worthy of note that SSA has also not achieved an agricultural productivity transition, lagging far behind other world regions in terms of average crop yields. The future of many SSA countries hinges on getting agriculture moving and keeping it moving at a rapid pace. Therefore, in selected SSA countries, U.S. government assistance agencies should also focus on rebuilding their overseas agricultural capacity, utilizing the latest knowledge and technologies.

In this regard, forty years ago the most important comparative advantage of the U.S. was considered to be in the area of agriculture. Back then, USAID had a handful of American agronomists in each of its SSA missions; now it has none. This time around, U.S. agricultural assistance needs to be more intricately linked to producing more nutritionally dense foods and promoting cultivation practices that mitigate the negative effects of climate change.

Need for Multi-Year Funding

Currently, assistance funding is dependent on annual appropriations by the U.S. Congress while assured multi-year funding is needed by poor SSA countries. If lasting results are to be achieved, guaranteed funding commitments of 10 to 15 years are required. The U.S. Congress should pass new legislation which designates all countries listed in the low human development category to be eligible for multi-year crisis funding.

The U.S. government should be consistent when it comes to aiding SSA’s neediest countries, avoiding changes in its assistance focus with the arrival of each new administration. The U.S. needs to be a reliable partner that sticks with host country entities over the long-term, even when a duly elected host government is overthrown. The welfare of the people should be the main concern and improving their well-being requires staying on course for the long haul.

Of course, no effective BHN assistance program is possible without peace and stability. Accordingly, a determination should be made to identify those poorest countries which are sufficiently stable to qualify for a regular flow of long-term BHN assistance.

At the onset, it also needs to be determined if a host government is capable and willing to adopt the policies needed to facilitate BHN assistance. Competent and honest African leaders who put the best interests of their country first should be an important factor for the U.S. in deciding which countries to assist.

A concentration on the education and health sectors, and possibly the agriculture sector, does not relieve the host government of doing its utmost to adopt and enforce policies which favor the development of these sectors. Any host government that balks at the adoption of policies and the reinforcement of institutions conducive to these sectors, should be the object of a frank dialogue which can be best characterized as a ‘tough love’ approach.

Need for Qualified Staff and Reduced Reporting Requirements

The effective implementation of BHN assistance activities requires a high-performing field presence. The staff of U.S. assistance missions must be able to work in close collaboration with host governments, other donors and local and international partners. Importantly, these missions must increase their capacity to undertake independently the design, implementation and evaluation of BHN assistance in order to reduce their over-reliance on private U.S. firms and NGOs, whose overhead costs can consume 30 percent of total assistance funding.

In addition, excessive bureaucratic red tape and reporting requirements need to be reduced. Currently, USAID is obliged to submit over 100 annual reports to Congress. This represents more reporting requirements than the Department of Defense, which has a budget 30 times larger than USAID. It may be of interest to note that USAID’s annual budget is less than one percent of the U.S. federal budget.

Defining Fundamental U.S. Strategic Interests

Current practice is to elaborate a U.S. assistance strategy for a given SSA country by defining first our fundamental strategic interests. In some SSA countries those interests could be based on the U.S. need for minerals (e.g., oil, cobalt, chromium, bauxite and coltan), but there are only a handful of countries in SSA that possess natural reserves of these minerals. The U.S. may also have an interest in preventing the advancement of extremist groups in some SSA countries. As stated earlier, I believe that the main interest of the U.S. in most SSA countries is humanitarian.

I expected deep changes to be made in the organizational structures of the U.S. presence in most SSA countries following the end of the Cold War over 30 years ago. But, in spite of the end of the East-West conflict, little changed, and the U.S. continued to do business mostly as usual in every SSA country, following largely previous practices that put U.S. interests above the interests of the local people.

The poorest countries in SSA cannot be helped in a maximum manner if the U.S. continues to manage its official missions in these countries as it has done in the past, following a complicated bureaucratic process that can take many months from activity conception to actual implementation. Change in the way the U.S. operates in designated SSA countries is long overdue.

In those SSA countries selected for assistance, the entire mission should be organized in a way that supports the implementation of its BHN assistance program. The U.S. ambassador should be a knowledgeable and capable professional familiar with humanitarian assistance.

All U.S. agencies present within a U.S. mission should be obliged to work from the same overarching BHN assistance plan and be devoted to the implementation of this whole-of-government plan. Having all agencies focused on contributing to the efficient execution of the mission plan will help bring all U.S. mission personnel together as one unified team.

The ambassador should work closely with other donor agency heads present in country and with relevant host government officials, making sure that no U.S.-funded activity duplicates what other donors, or host governments, are already doing or plan to do. The ambassador should concentrate on ensuring the competent pursuit of the overriding goal of his or her mission: humanitarian assistance.

Redesigning U.S. assistance to Africa in this post-pandemic era is part of an overdue larger revision of foreign assistance legislation. Much will depend on the will of the executive branch following the 2020 election and the legislative agenda of the 117th Congress after it begins work in January 2021. This article attempts to provide a few key suggestions on how this agenda can be formulated to benefit Africa.

 Mark Wentling (Honduras 1967-69 & Togo 1970-73) retired in 1996 from the Senior Foreign Service after serving as USAID’s principal officer in six African countries. He has also worked in Africa for the Peace Corps, Non-Governmental Organizations and as a contract employee with USAID. His decades in Africa have afforded him the opportunity to have known all 54 African countries. He has published five books and the first volume of his sixth, three-volume book, Africa Memoir, 1970 – 2020, was published in August 2020. The remaining two volumes are scheduled to be published by the end of 2020. This multi-volume book covers all 54 African countries.


One Comment

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  • I am currently reading Volume I of “Africa Memoir” and taking notes in preparation for writing a review of Mark Wentling’s interesting, useful description of his four decades of living and working in Africa. His long list of suggestions, above, regarding future U.S. aid to Africa, while helpful as an overview, are worthy of further refinement by him. At the outset of this piece, Mark establishes this guiding principle:

    “The effectiveness of U.S. aid in Africa can be enhanced by focusing on the least developed countries. Helping address basic human needs, notably in the areas of education and health, should be top priority, especially the education of girls. Increasing agricultural production to improve nutritional health also deserves greater attention.”

    I believe that Mark has the experience necessary to help this reader and government policy makers and NGO program designers by taking the next step on the road to greater specificity: (1) Either using a top-down or bottom-up approach, determine a list of the 10 “least-developed countries” in Africa which the U.S. should target; (2) estimate an overall or country-by-country budget relating to a 10-year program of development to double education and health outcomes, “especially the education of girls;” (3) recommend a budget for “increasing agricultural production to improve nutritional health” by 200% within 10 years; and (4) describe specific actions which the U.S. should take to work in collaboration with African government and NGO partners to achieve each of the outcomes above.

    Mark Wentling has made an admirable start to making U.S. aid to Africa more efficacious. With some additional specificity regarding both outcomes and the budget necessary to achieve them, it will be easier for us, his RPCV colleagues and cohorts, to see how we can follow his lead and collaborate with him, African governments, NGOs, and African communities and institutions to produce enhanced livability in 10 African countries by 2030-2035.

    I welcome your suggestions for improving upon my recommendations.

    Robert Hamilton (Bahar Dar, Ethiopia; 1965-67)
    Cell: 503-320-5994

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