Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Following up on promises made to Africa's poor

Pledging money for some of the world's poorest and most destitute people is good PR, but the West has been slow at putting all the high-minded talk into real action


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 US$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 G8 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 election victory last year sparked international concern about his commitment to human rights.

In January, Britain cut all of its aid to Ethiopia's government and redirected the ?50 million (US$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 G8 last month struck Nigeria, notorious for corruption, from a financial black list, 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 has been made over the last 18 months, many agree.

While development experts say more should be done, the US is credited by many with focusing attention on AIDS in Africa.

Most concretely, the IMF has canceled the debt owed it by many African countries and further reductions by other international lenders are scheduled, for those countries and others. The G8 said US$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 skeptics say Western agencies granted many of the loans during the Cold War as inducement to African leaders, including flagrantly corrupt dictators, to ally against the Soviets.

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