Somewhat unexpectedly for many Africans, America’s first African American president offered the continent rather tough love in his first official visit. Amidst the usual political fluff, President Obama’s recent speech, delivered in Ghana this Saturday, contained some very pointed comments, including a controversial assertion that the time to blame colonization and Western exploitation for Africa’s problems has ended.

While the development crisis in Africa can be difficult to talk about in the United States, no matter how well-informed, traveled, or racially-sensitive one might be, President Obama leveraged his African background to tell Africans point-blank that their problems stem from weak government structures, traditions of corruption and nepotism, and the people’s failure to insist upon accountability. Though I personally feel that colonial policies and institutions have plenty to do with modern African instability, corruption, and ethnic conflict, I’m pleased to hear Obama demanding more of Africans—especially young Africans. Such demands from John McCain or Hillary Clinton could not have held the same weight.

Obama’s controversial statements have, somewhat predictably, inspired bickering and finger-pointing on countless internet forums. I can’t help but feel that something has been lost amid these arguments. In all likelihood, Obama is more acutely aware of the historical injustices Africa has suffered than any of his predecessors. His speech in Accra was not meant to deny these, but to signal that the time has come for Africa to move forward. Unending arguments about historical responsibility aside, Africa and the West should be able to agree on one point: African development solutions must come from Africans from here on out.

As I learned while living in Kenya last year, African artists, entrepreneurs, and civil society organizations are ready for that responsibility. The question then becomes, “How do we empower these solutions?”

Like many politicians before him, President Obama lamented the failure of decades of foreign aid to improve living conditions or fuel sustainable development in Africa. In an interview with AllAfrica.com, just before his departure to Ghana, Obama described U.S. foreign assistance policy as fragmented and unfocused: “Our aid policies have been splintered among a variety of agencies, different theories embraced by different people depending on which administration, which party, is in power at any given time. Trying to create something steady and focused—and always basing our policies on what works and not on some ideological previous position—is going to be very important.”

Whether these statements will translate into concrete foreign assistance policy reform has yet to be seen. The President, now six months into his administration, has offered up few concrete plans for reform and is yet to name a top USAID administrator.

“Aid is not an end in itself,” Obama said on Saturday. “The purpose of foreign assistance should be to create the conditions where it’s no longer needed.” Healthcare infrastructure, education, support for small- and medium-sized businesses and technical assistance for farmers and workers are all examples of investments long-term sustainable growth. Slowing the brain drain on African medical staff, empowering people through worker-owned cooperatives, increasing aid for climate change adaptation, and allowing room for regional political and economic structures to develop are a few more. Though with little more than rhetoric coming from the administration, whether or not these initiatives actually emerge in the form of concrete U.S. policies is largely up to us and the pressure we put on our legislators to write them.

Obama has proposed a system of mutual responsibility in Africa’s development efforts, promising America’s continued assistance if Africans hold their leaders accountable and create a positive investment environment for US aid funds. But there’s much to be done on our own end, as well, in terms of figuring out what types of assistance are effective in supporting Africans to meet their own development objectives and what other policies we might have at play (ie. trade) that might adversely affect this development process.

In today’s hyper-connected world, issues of health, peace, and development in the developing world should be at the forefront of US policy discussions. As Obama puts it: “The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well.” Perhaps it’s time we started paying closer attention to the intricacies of our relationships with the developing world.

Watch the speech and read Obama’s interview with AllAfrica.com.

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