Getting Real on “African Solutions to African Problems”

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At her confirmation hearing yesterday, soon-to-be UN ambassador Susan Rice listed strengthening peacekeeping capacity as the first of four priority areas for the United States at the United Nations.

We have written extensively about the need for the United States to fully fund UN peacekeeping. And given the binary choice between doing nothing in failing states or sending in US troops, UN peacekeeping is quite a bargain–which Rice says amounts to about 12 cents on every dollar.

During the question and answer period, though, the conversation on peacekeeping ventured into interesting territory. Rice fielded a question on peacekeeping from (I believe) Senator Kerry and took her answer in an unexpected but welcome direction. Rice argued that part of the overall solution to strengthening UN peacekeeping has to be building up regional peacekeeping capacities–namely in Africa. She said that Africa was basically “tapped out” with its ability to field peacekeepers and that we need “a systematic strengthening of peacekeeping in Africa and elsewhere.”

There has been a tendency at the Security Council to invoke “African solutions to African problems,” as the saying goes, and then devolve responsibility for dealing with some of the continent’s thorniest issues to the African Union. There is nothing wrong with this sentiment in theory, but in practice it means that the African Union has been treated as something of a “first responders” to crises like Darfur and Somalia. The problem, though, is that the AU is a young and resource-scrapped institution that lacks the capacity to implement the kind of complex peacekeeping operations that these situations require; finding and funding troops is a particularly daunting task that often results in the delayed deployment of too few troops. Yet, member states of the Security Council have been content to pass the buck to the African Union under the mantra of “African solutions to African problems.”

Rice’s testimony seems to suggest that the United States will do more to help build the AU’s peacekeeping capacity. This would be a very welcome development and could very well save an untold number of lives as future crises are averted though rapid regional response.

(Photo of an AU patrol in Mogadishu, Somalia. From Flickr under a creative commons license)

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