Djibouti–what’s next in French Somaliland?

“Developing Djibouti: An American Imperative” by Saleem Ali of the University of Queensland at NationalGeographic.com:

A nominal democracy, the country has been relatively peaceful yet still desperately poor. I had an opportunity to visit Djibouti recently after a visit to Ethiopia for the United Nations African Development Forum. My curiosity to visit this country was sparked by an article I had read in The Washington Post regarding the expansion of US military presence in the region. Landing at Djibouti International airport, one is alarmed to find one side of the air strip almost completely populated by US Airforce presence. The country is also among the few places in the world where drone aircraft can be seen on a civilian air strip, often overwhelming civilian traffic. The presence of these prized new airforce stealth weapons in Djibouti comes from its proximity to the Arabian state of Yemen which has become an increasingly significant hotbed for Al-Qaeda.

Talking to locals, there was little resentment towards American presence but also not much to show for their positive impact on the country. Occasionally one would hear stories of US soldiers volunteering for community service or building some unusual desert residence for local villagers, but the overall development impact of US presence here of over 3000 personnel has been minimal. Unemployment is still over 40% and much of the money that comes in from foreign investment is funnelled back to the foreign-owned businesses in the city. The US government pays only $38 million per year to lease the airfield for the drone operations and the African command base here which is under further expansion.

The lack of US investment in Djibouti is a tremendous missed opportunity to develop a country which could be a low-hanging fruit for citizen diplomacy with the Muslim world. With only 900,000 people and a relatively small land-base and a highly urbanized population, developing Djibouti with aid investment would be very easy to do. . . .

While “easy” may be an exaggeration, I agree with Ali’s point that Djibouti is a place where the United States ought to be committed to “showing our stuff” in terms of development capability.  And of course, as I have written before, a key place where delivering on democracy assistance in advance of, rather than behind, a crisis, ought to be feasible.

h/t John Brown’s Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review

 

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