Black Caucus Profiles: Rep. Donald Payne

The United States commits more than $3 billion a year to Sub-Saharan Africa. Rep. Donald Payne, the new head of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, argues that more could be done to assist Africa with emergency food aid and health care.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

The United States commits more than $3 billion a year to Sub-Saharan Africa. Some is for emergency food aid and health care, but U.S. Congressman Donald Payne says we should do more.

Congressman Payne is the new head of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations. In the conclusion of our series on power players in the Congressional Black Caucus, he tells me he wishes aid for Africa were better organized.

Representative DONALD PAYNE (Democrat, New Jersey): We have to coordinate more with the philanthropic community. We're seeing moneys being contributed now: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, large contribution by Mr. Buffett; and even in another area not dealing with HIV and AIDS or health, Oprah Winfrey's recent $40 million contribution personally to girls' education and leadership institute in South Africa are the types of things that we need to highlight.

So what I'd like to see is government and the philanthropic community come closer together so that we can maximize what we're doing.

CHIDEYA: Before we turn to some of the military issues, specifically the conflicts between Somalia and Ethiopia, do you think that the United States needs to take a second look at tariffs and subsidies? A lot of African nations produce goods like cotton and they can't get what they consider a fair market price because the U.S. subsidizes these same goods in our own nation. It is a very difficult issue where you have on the one side American farmers and on the other side subsistence farmers in Africa. What should be done about that?

Rep. PAYNE: The West has to come together and say that we should all drop our subsidies. And if the others don't, we ought to just take the lead. With the growing economics of China, you know, they have about 300 million middle-class people now. Of course, they still have 700 or 800 billion that live in abject poverty. However, the economic status of Chinese are increasing and therefore their dietary choices are also changing.

Now there could be, for example, feeding beef with soybean, which now is one of the major products used for cattle. I don't see the need for U.S. subsidies anymore. I think that the world's growing need for agriculture, whether it's to be consumed or whether it's used for fabrics, et cetera, it should be withdrawn.

Even Japan's protective quotas on rice being imported in Japan, we could sell rice to Japan at one-half the price of what it costs their farmers to grow. And so there has to be a worldwide approach to dropping these superficial barriers so that Africa, which is - agriculture could be their real future, can actually have a level playing field.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to military issues. You have Somalia, where Ethiopian troops came in, put in or helped put in a government which the nation hasn't had in a while, pushed out the Islamic Courts Union. At the same time, do you think that Ethiopia's military intervention is good or bad for America? Some people on the continent even point to America and say, did America engineer this entire Ethiopian intervention?

Rep. PAYNE: I think that it once again was a misstep in our policy. There's a temporary victory because the Islamic Courts Union have been defeated. However, Ethiopia can't stay there for too long. They're going to have to withdraw. It's going to be difficult to get a Africa Union. Actually, if the United States had engaged with the transitional government initially when they were asking us, I've met with them on a number of occasions in Nairobi when they were fledging and trying to create a government.

Finally, the Islamic Courts came in and actually created safety and kind of ejected the warlords out of Mogadishu and actually took over other parts of the country, which was really welcomed by the Somalis because for 14 years they had no law and order. And for the first time, their children could play in the streets; the women could go to the market. And so the Islamic Courts Union was actually welcomed by a majority of the people because they had nothing but terror over the 14 years.

Of course, then we encouraged Ethiopia to go in. They deny they were there. They've been there for months. But they can't stay there because it will be a guerilla-type war. It would be simply what's happening in Iraq to our coalition forces with Ethiopia there. And so - and it also weakens, I think, the transitional government because it seems like a proxy of Ethiopia, who are archenemies of Somalia. So I think it was a failed policy.

Now we have a real serious problem that we are going to have to try to unravel.

CHIDEYA: There are so many hotspots throughout the continent, and among them are Sudan, the Darfur region. You have the possibility of more fighting in the Horn of Africa around Somalia and Ethiopia. You have Zimbabwe with political repression of dissidents. Now you are no Johnny-come-lately to these issues. In '73, you actually visited the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to ask that he curb human rights violations. That must have taken a lot of guts. And would you do anything similar in the future with other governments?

Rep. PAYNE: Well, I've done traveling, went to places in eastern Congo years ago when the war factions were going on. I've met with some of the various leaders who really have been (unintelligible) with their militias. And I've met with them then. And so when I went back for the elections, I was able to meet with them again as they were seeking office and ask them to respect the will of the people. There were some bumps, but by and large they did.

And so it's been an advantage for me to have been involved and engaged for a long time. Even in Rhodesia during the war there, as a matter of fact, that's when the Lancaster House Agreement that was signed by Britain and the U.S. saying that they would help to buy back the land from the white Rhodesians and to have it distributed to the war veterans, which never occurred.

CHIDEYA: And in some ways that perhaps could have avoided some of the problems later around land in Zimbabwe.

Rep. PAYNE: Exactly. Exactly.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me just take you to one question that probably pertains to a lot of Democrats in Congress. Do you consider yourself, as you go about the work that you do, particularly on Africa, in accordance with the administration's policies or as an opposition force to them?

Rep. PAYNE: Well, it's been both. For example, I was annoyed that the U.S. did not go into Liberia more quickly. A matter of fact, the Nigerians went in first. I have been in opposition to a number of policies that we've had and have declared that. I think we should be more aggressive in Darfur. I try to see where the policy in my opinion, and it's just my opinion, is going in the right direction. I'm totally supportive. I totally oppose the U.S.'s handling of the Somalia situation.

And for the last three years, I've been asking in public hearings that we do something and get engaged. Because I was meeting with the Somali government officials in Kenya, as I've mentioned earlier, And even a month ago tried to reach the chief negotiator for the Islamic Courts Union before the Ethiopians went in, and they were saying they wanted to negotiate. But I do think that we have to have a more integrated program.

And let me just say this, I am going to attempt to bring in other committees -the financial services committee, the agricultural committee, even the new chairman of the veterans' committee said he is interested in finding out and learning more about Africa.

So what I'm going to hope to do is to have a more integrated approach where we could perhaps have the Army Corps of Engineers assist countries in building elementary schools, which are very inexpensive, and to work with a voluntary organizations, religious groups, to equip and to help assist in teacher training itself.

CHIDEYA: What you're saying, really, is to try to coordinate the different branches of government in the service of Africa. But are there ever times when U.S. needs and interest - for example, national security - go against some of our needs and interests in terms of human outreach?

And I am thinking here specifically of Somalia, where the U.S. government did have certain security needs regarding the Islamic Courts Union and its possible ties to al-Qaida. And that may not have jived with some of the interests that we had in terms of protecting the people and having a stable government.

Rep. PAYNE: One of our problems is that we have faulty information that the Islamic Courts Union were tied to al-Qaida. That is not true. The Somali people are fiercely independent. They want absolutely no outside jurisdiction. And a transitional government could have been as welcome as the Islamic Courts Union had they been given the wherewithal, given the tools, if they were able to bring in law and order the way that the Islamic Courts had done.

So it's once again sort of a dollar short and a day late. And we have to, one, know what the facts are on the ground and then we can deal with the issues in an enlightened manner rather than to deal with hearsay in that al-Qaida is behind the Islamic Courts Union movement, which is absolutely untrue.

Now if we continually encourage outsiders to go in, those countries will certainly look to whomever will be able to help them, and that's where the al-Qaida types come in.

CHIDEYA: Congressman, thank you so much.

Rep. PAYNE: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: U.S. congressman Donald Payne represents New Jersey's 10th District. He is the new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, Condoleezza Rice is in Saudi Arabia today, continuing her Mideast tour. And on our Africa update, more on Zimbabwe and the challenges it faces.

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