Aid makes inroads into Africa's crisis. But rising debt eats away at early gains in food production and health

In terms of income, ``most Africans are now worse off than they were two decades ago. However ...'' And then Babacar N'Diaye, one of Africa's leading development experts, launches into what could be labeled the ``plus'' and ``possible'' sides of Africa's post-independence era.

Just as Congress recently took its first look at this session's major economic aid bill for Africa, Mr. N'Diaye is reassuring US development experts and policymakers that: Africans are making some progress, and more progress is likely - if supported by ongoing international aid.

On the plus side, N'Diaye, president of the African Development Bank (ADB), based in the Ivory Coast, says that since independence, in most African nations:

Life expectancy has risen (by 10 years, a report by US analysts says).

Infant mortality rates have fallen.

Literacy has risen significantly.

Health services, though still very sparse in many areas, are available to more people than ever before.

Still, in terms of per capita income, most Africans today have less than they did two decades ago, he concedes.

Population growth rates are eating up many of the gains made in food production. Africa faces a serious debt burden and continued loss of land to desertification and protracted civil wars that interfere with food distribution in several nations. All of this portends numerous challenges for the entire continent.

This is where N'Diaye turns to the possible side of Africa's progress. In a style that has recently become more common among African leaders, he does not spend much time blaming drought for Africa's current problems. Nor does he blame oil price increases in the 1970s that made trading, transportation, and production too expensive for most African nations.

Instead, he lists failures by Africans themselves, and says more progress is possible if these failures are corrected. His list includes: lack of help from their own governments for African investors and business leaders; too much government interference and protectionism in economic policy, discouraging competition and efficiency; and not enough attention to agriculture.

``Africa has turned into a net importer of food from being a modest net exporter in the 1960s,'' N'Diaye says.

But he added in an interview here, ``I am optimistic about the trend [of improvements in African agriculture] because of the commitment of African countries to increase their investment in agriculture.''

Here, however, N'Diaye cautions that US and other developed nations that impose trade barriers against agricultural imports from developing nations are likely to hurt Africa. Agriculture, he says, is ``perhaps the only area where poor African countries have a competitive advantage'' in international trade.

A recent study by Robert Paarlberg for the Curry Foundation, a Washington policy study group, said that the US can actually boost its own agricultural exports by helping a developing nation boost its agriculture. As farmers in developing nations earn more, their demand for food can increase beyond what they are able to grow at home.

N'Diaye is hoping to see Africa's situation improved through:

Some kind of debt relief for African nations. Africa needs a period of at least a few years to use funds for development.

More international assistance. For example, N'Diaye hopes to increase the capital resources of the African Development Bank some 200 percent within the next few years.

The ADB, founded in 1963, last year lent African nations some $l.6 billion. The bank is shifting its focus from loans primarily for projects to loans in return for promises to make policy reforms. The US, which recently has called for fundamental changes in Africa's economic policies, is the largest non-African member of the ADB.

The bill now before Congress calls for five-year authorization of funds for Africa with yearly aid levels starting at $600 million in 1988 and adding $20 million each year after that.

It earmarks minimum amounts to be spent on programs for natural resource preservation, health, and family planning. Womens' activities are given special attention. And it calls for voluntary development organizations to be consulted in planning development spending.

The bill also calls for a five-year moratorium on debt repayments to the US government. But most of Africa's debt is owed to international lending institutions that do not allow rescheduling of capital. Sponsors of the bill hope the moratorium on debt to the US will be ``symbolic'' and encourage the international lenders to consider ways to ease African nations' repayment schedules.

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