Promises Are Going Unfulfilled in Africa

Associated Press Writer
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) - More than 600 million of the world's poorest people live in Africa - often in crowded cities, or in small villages lacking health clinics or schools. Unlike every other region in the world, the poverty here worsens each year.
So when some of the world's most powerful leaders stood before the television cameras and promised drastic change, including an annual aid increase of $50 billion by 2010 with half going to Africa, many Africans cheered. But a year on, the huzzahs are fading.
``They earned great kudos, internationally and at home: It looked like they were really doing something,'' Oxfam Great Britain's Muthoni Muriu says of the pledges made at last year's Group of Eight summit, which host British Prime Minister Tony Blair had seen as the culmination of a year focused on Africa.
``We really must celebrate what little steps have been made,'' says Muriu, the British charity's Kenyan-born West Africa program director. ``But we must see the big picture, which isn't that good.''
Disease, conflict, illiteracy: Africa's ills are well known.
But the solutions aren't. Africans face a web of interlocking woe: How can you train workers if pupils aren't fed well enough to concentrate in school? How can businesses succeed if skilled employees fall sick with malaria? How do you stop the spread of malaria if the mosquitos that carry it thrive in open sewers?
Implicit in the G8 promises were expectations African leaders would do more to embrace democracy and clean up corruption. There, again, progress has been fitful.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had served on Blair's Commission on Africa, whose work underpinned much of what emerged from last year's G8 summit. Meles had been widely praised as a reformer, but violence unleashed against opposition members protesting his 2005 election victory sparked international concern about his commitment to human rights.
In January, Britain cut all of its aid to Ethiopia's government and redirected the $87 million to humanitarian agencies or local governments.
There are bright spots, however. Voters in Mauritania approved term limits meant to keep presidents from holding onto power for life, and legislators in Nigeria protected such limits. The Group of Eight in June struck Nigeria, notorious for corruption, from a financial blacklist, citing its progress fighting money laundering.
On the West's side, leaders promised universal access to AIDS treatments by the end of the decade and even as firm figures are hard to come by, movement toward that goal was made in 2005, many agree.
While development experts say more should be done, the United States is credited by many with focusing attention on AIDS in Africa.
Most concretely, the International Monetary Fund has canceled the debt owed it by many African countries and further reductions by other international lenders are scheduled. The G8 said $55 billion in debts could eventually be forgiven.
That act alone freed up cash that would have been used to pay the debt's interest, if not even the principal. Now, Africans and their international partners are building roads, financing schools, stocking shelves in health clinics.
After Zambia's red ink was wiped away, that country began offering its people free access to basic health care.
But international groups are accusing some of the G8 countries of ``double counting'' - or moving debt write-offs to the aid-granted column, showing an increase in giving on balance sheets even as the pot of actual currency for projects in Africa may shrink.
Oxfam says that when the debt write-offs are factored out of Britain's reported 2005 aid of $10.6 billion, that country actually spent two percent less than in 2004. France and Germany also came out in the negative column, according to Oxfam.
Some political leaders agree they need help sticking to their stated aims.
On June 26, Blair acknowledged that key Group of Eight commitments to help Africa have not been met, and he appointed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to lead a panel monitoring progress toward the goals.
Blair said in a speech in London that the Africa Progress Panel will be funded by Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates. Members will include anti-poverty campaigner Bob Geldof and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with 130 million people.
The G8 leaders meet again this month in Russia and Annan, himself an African from Ghana, said he wouldn't let the leaders' pledges slip from the agenda.
For Africa, where most are quick to voice their gratitude for the grants, debt write-offs and other help, a major hitch is far more banal: farm subsidies. Weekend trade negotiations among ministers of World Trade Organization members broke down over the issue.
Africans say the money granted to farmers in America, Europe and China undercut their goods in the open market, making it harder to compete and hobbling efforts to advance without the help of rich patrons.
Doling out aid and clearing debt is much easier for elected politicians in rich nations than cutting subsidies, which hurts their own farmers, who also happen to be voters. By some estimates, annual farm subsidies outstrip aid payments in many countries.
Cotton producers in the west African nation of Mali say they just want to compete in a truly free market.
``We're not asking for subsidies of our own, we just want a fair price for our cotton and the same rules for everyone,'' says Barry Aminata Tour, president of the Malian activist group, Coalition for Debt and Development Alternatives.
``Our people simply can't survive anymore by the fruits of their own labor.''
Associated Press Writers Almahady Cisse in Bamako, Mali and Todd Pitman in Banjul, Gambia, contributed to this report.

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