Markets and Morality: American Relations with Tanzania

by Tony Waters


Tanzania has never been high on the list of official US relationships in Africa.  And for America, this has probably not been a major problem; the two countries are economically and socially very different. Chronically poor, Tanzania has seemingly little to offer the wealthy and powerful United States. Tanzania has an annual GNP capita of $290 for its 36.5 million people, which works out to a total GNP of approximately $10.5 billion. Of the total national product, about $1 billion arrives in the form of bilateral aid, little of it directly from the United States. Tanzania also produces little that is of interest in the world marketplace. As a result the United States has few aid programs designed directly for Tanzania. Rather, embassy and USAID staff peddle the grab bag of Washington-designed economic assistance programs rooted in ideologies of market economics.

Nevertheless, despite, or perhaps because of its economic disadvantages, Tanzania makes important non-economic contributions to the international system out of proportion to its economic muscle. In particular, Tanzania has a recognized capacity to make moral claims not just because of its poverty, but also because of its political stability, strong record of mediating between unruly neighbors, successful wildlife conservation policies, and hosting of refugees. Such policies focus on the moral responsibilities nations have in the world order, rather than market economics. But moral assertions are a poor fit with the trade-based relationships the United States typically seeks. An exception which perhaps illustrates the two different approaches is in the public health programs sponsored by the Center for Disease Control and USAID since the late 1990s. For the Americans, justification for such public health programs is in the “lost productivity” of ill workers, particularly the young adults who die of HIV/AIDS.  For the Tanzanians, the justification is rooted in a moral obligation to assist the sick.

In the field of foreign relations, Tanzania has rarely looked toward the United States.  Tanzania’s main focus has instead been on good relations with the southern African countries now ruled by parties it assisted to achieve independence between the 1960s and 1990s, and the social democracies of Europe which provide more direct financial assistance than the United States. Much of this European aid is directed toward sectors which are not geared toward direct market production such as public health, water systems, primary education, and wildlife conservation. Tanzania also has consistently close relations with China which built the Tanzania-Zambia railway in the 1960s when Tanzania flirted with Chinese Communism. But with the United States, irrespective of the fact that it has the biggest embassy compound in Dar Es Salaam, relationships are typically at arms length, a condition that changed only briefly following the Al Qaeda attack on the United States Embassy in Tanzania in 1998.

In short, there is a mismatch between the political, economic, and cultural interests of the United States and Tanzania.  The United States seeks to use the world market system to further its global goals, and does so using the ideology of the marketplace.  American foreign assistance programs emphasize entrepreneurship, and engagement in world commodity markets through programs like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and the Millennium Challenge Account.  Even American programs implemented for humanitarian reasons, like health, education, and refugee assistance are likely to be justified in terms of lost labor productivity, rather than simple appeals to do what is right irrespective of the economic consequences.  But Tanzania, which has little leverage in the world economic system, does not always use such economic dogma to justify policy.  Instead, it seeks goals through ideological and moral claims.  You protect refugees because it is your responsibility as a neighbor, you treat the sick because it is the right thing to do, and oppose colonialism whether or not it is profitable to do so.

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Tony Waters is Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, California State University, Chico. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Dar Es Salaam in 2003-04, and worked in Tanzania in refugee assistance projects in 1984-7, and 1994-6. He is the author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (Westview 2001), and The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath the Marketplace (Lexington Books, 2006).


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