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As authoritarians gain ground, President Biden hosts his democracy summit

The virtual meeting was stronger on symbolism than practical policies with 16 African countries participating and counted as US allies

The most tangible development to come out of the United States' summit for democracy on 9-10 December was its pledge of $424 million to fight corruption and promote independent media, and the launch of a coordinated strategy to crack down on illicit financial flows. Much of that cash will go to the International Fund for Public Interest Media.

The wider goal of the summit was to 'provide a platform to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.' Yet about a third of the 110 invited countries were classed by the US's Freedom House as only 'partly free'. Angola and Congo-Kinshasa, seen by Washington as key allies to counter China's influence in Africa, are classed as 'not free' at all (AC Vol 62 No 21, Phee's first footings).

Criticised by both left and right on the US political spectrum for its choice of delegates and policy agenda, the summit, held via by teleconference, was cast as a preparatory meeting for a much grander in-person conference next year. In Beijing and Moscow, it was denigrated as a reversion to the Cold War era; it followed the US's labelling of the persecution of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang Province as genocide and stern warnings to the Kremlin about its massing of some 120,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern borders.

The summit's anti-corruption strategy, set out over 40 pages, calls for modernising US policing efforts on corruption, tougher penalties on enablers of illicit finance and strengthening multilateral cooperation. It draws on the UN Conference on Trade & Development's (UNCTAD) analysis of the economic damage caused by these flows and its estimates that over $86 billion leaves Africa each year in illicit capital flight.

These measures would require some restrictions on the US's own tax-haven jurisdictions such as President Joe Biden's home state of Delaware and a raft of legislation to update the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Should Biden and the Democrats try to push through new measures, they're likely to encounter strong opposition in Congress from the Republicans and their business allies.

Regardless of such domestic political limits there is much that the European Union and the US could achieve by tightening international regulations on property and personal investments, legal and auditing services. Ben Judah of the Atlantic Council proposes a Transatlantic Anti-Corruption Council modelled on the US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council. Much will depend on the political will on both sides of the Atlantic.

Washington is also to likely investigate and sanction more international politicians and business people that it links to grand corruption. Over the past month it has added further sanctions on Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler, business partner of ex-president of Congo-Kinshasa Joseph Kabila, and Isabel dos Santos, billionaire daughter of ex-president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos.

Anti-corruption campaigners, some of whom contributed policy ideas, strongly backed the summit's strategy paper and funding commitments. Others such as Rose Jackson, Director of the Democracy and Tech Initiative in Washington DC, were disappointed by the proposals on the abuses of information technology, particularly the lack of tougher measures against companies exporting digital surveillance equipment to repressive regimes.

Several speakers at the summit pointed out the extent to which digital technology and social media have become enablers of many authoritarian regimes. It is just a decade since the wave of protests in North Africa, known as the Arab Spring, were seen as critically helped, on the ideological and organisation level, by social media platforms.

Significantly, despite all North African countries except Libya having held elections, not one was invited to the democracy summit. It may have been a calculated but low-cost snub to Egypt's Abdel Fattah el Sisi and Morocco's King Mohammed VI, both close allies of defeated President Donald Trump.

For the rest of Africa, the list of participants was a useful guide to those countries seen as critical to Washington's emerging policies on security, such as countering Beijing and Moscow, and to further economic and commercial interests.

It included: Angola, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Congo-Kinshasa, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé e Príncipe, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa and Zambia.

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