Building Partner Capacity in West Africa | Wilson Center
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Building Partner Capacity in West Africa

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“There is no better capacity building out there than a strong economy and a strong private sector doing business that people see opportunity in.” -- Congressman Adam Smith

Addressing Local Cooperation & Common Goals

Jane Harman opened the discussion by calling for a balance between the United States’ firm hand, and “project[ing] a narrative about what we stand for and care about,” citing discrepancies between the tactics and strategies. Congressman Smith focused his remarks on the notion that cooperation between USG agencies and local parties is essential. “We can’t just show up and tell the people what to do. That really doesn’t work. [We] need to build a partnership and friendship to focus on common goals.” Smith stated that the United States needs to approach its foreign interests in such a way that the locals feel they are a part of the process, rather than collateral damage.

Who are our Partners?

Traditionally, West Africa has only garnered attention from the West as it related to a specific set of interests i.e. natural resources and security. The Congressman spoke of the necessity of a multipronged approach to capacity building that does not solely include the military. Development and governance are what produce results, he charged. It is not just about training local security forces on how to enforce the law; the United States must “keep the local population on [its] side.” By concentrating on military partnership and capability, the civilian populace is often disenfranchised. The United States Government (USG) should also consider the use of capacity building as a means to assure access to new markets and promote good governance.  The relationship ought to be based squarely on mutual respect and understanding, for which the USG has been subject to sharp criticism.

The Core Challenges

“The security portion of capacity building doesn’t work if human rights aren’t [respected] first and foremost,” stated the Congressman. Security forces need to be as effective as they are observant of human rights standards. Achieving this equilibrium is perhaps the region’s most significant challenge. Yet Congressman Smith conceded that an absolute human rights standard does not exist. Articulating the contours that separate violations and respect can be a daunting task. The same can be said when countries begin to cross the line of accepted norms and the USG is then obliged to make a decision about when or whether or not to the pull the plug on its support, diplomatic or otherwise.

Another formidable challenge to capacity building in West Africa is the lack of interagency cooperation. There is the issue of what the Congressman called, “diplomacy supremacy”— that is, the rapport de force between different agencies (e.g. Department of State versus USAID). Various USG agencies operating abroad with their respective agendas often descend into a competition between who has the so-called “final word” in decision making. A coordinated policy approach is perhaps the best way to counter diplomacy supremacy and advance American interests in West Africa. Furthermore, Smith raised the issue of what appears to be conflicting objectives. The United States spends more on the military and security than any other country in the world. “Do we always let security outweigh everything else?” Smith asked. This leaves room for a veil of contradiction to fall over US foreign policy when juxtaposed with other purported interests. The Congressman asserted that a unified and centralized strategy needs to be put in place by the Department of State before information is disseminated to other groups operating abroad.

The Private Sector & Government Accountability

Congressman Smith also spoke of the integrality of the private sector’s involvement in capacity building. There are “enormous opportunities in Africa… [it is home to some of] the fastest growing economies, which is great for Africa, and great for the world.” Business unfettered is an effective way to develop a country as it holds a clear incentive for the local people to get involved.

West Africa is not a “battle of hearts and minds” per se, but rather a question of institutional incentives for leadership at the top. People ought to respect and consider legitimate their government and security mechanisms. Capacity building is inherently linked to government accountability—to their own people and international partners. In that vein, Smith charged that capacity building could be used as a means for the United States to shift its foreign policy from a reactionary to preventative posture.

You Can’t Fix Everything

The U.S. should create space for other willing nations to take the initiative in West Africa. The question of “building a cooperative approach to the globe with emerging powers” is consequential. One of the central themes of Congressman Smith’s remarks was that the U.S. should “show a little humility and show the rest of the world that even the most indispensable nation in the world cannot fix everything.” Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, otherwise known as the BRICS nations, are stepping in to fill development voids with an initiative to bring their own banking consortium to the continent. He closed by saying that the biggest lesson for the continent is that upholding a solid system is more conducive to capacity building than the primacy of cults of personality.


  • Adam Smith

    Congressman (D-WA); Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Committee
  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Steve McDonald

    Former Director, Africa Program, Woodrow Wilson Center