Bring Africa out of the margins

The world's richest nations had a chance to hit a home run for the impoverished countries of sub-Saharan Africa at the G-8 summit in Canada last week. They settled for a single instead. What will it take to make up for this missed opportunity?

Let's look first at what the United States and the other industrialized countries did accomplish. They reaffirmed their recent commitments to build up to an additional $12 billion a year in development assistance to poor countries by 2006. They added an extra $1 billion to cover a funding shortfall for the ongoing program of debt reduction. They also agreed to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), a plan that Africa's leaders have themselves developed.

On other matters, however, the meeting fell short. There was no indication of how much of the $12 billion will go to Africa. There was no commitment to any immediate increase in development assistance; the bulk of the increase is promised for several years from now – and Africans have seen such promises evaporate many times.

Above all, there was no sense of the urgency of the moment. For the past few months, the signs of a unique opportunity have blossomed all around us. Last December, Congress formally asked President Bush to develop an international plan to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa. The new mood in Congress is dramatized by Sen. Jesse Helms's campaign to increase funding to fight AIDS.

Tony Blair and other G-8 leaders have been pushing hard for a serious G-8 response to NEPAD. Finally, President Bush himself has paid more attention to Africa than any prior US president, and will visit Africa next year.

These stirrings of concern still could converge into a new international commitment to help Africa boost the productivity of its struggling farmers, send its children to school, build democratic institutions, and become full partners in the global economy.

The miseries of Africa are urgent. One of every 3 people is chronically undernourished. Nearly half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Somebody dies of AIDS in Africa every 13 seconds.

So, after the G-8 summit, what can be done to move things forward? President Bush can now send members of Congress the plan to reduce hunger and poverty they requested. In the process, he should ask them to provide new money for African development next year. So far he has made exciting promises, but nearly all for 2004 and beyond.

Indeed, the Bush budget for 2003 calls for less overall spending on Africa than Congress approved in 2002. Why not contribute the US share of the $1 billion extra for debt relief – probably around $250 million – in 2003?

Britain and Canada, both strong backers of the African initiative, can act on their own commitments and keep pressure on the US. And African leaders must continue to live up to their commitment to democracy. Right now, they should demonstrate the peer pressure they promise by denouncing the undemocratic election staged by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe last March.

This is an exceptional moment in history. Today's opportunity to forge an international effort to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa may be short-lived. Woodrow Wilson, campaigning after World War I for the US to join the new League of Nations, said it would break the hearts of mankind if we refused. Yet refuse we did – setting the stage for an even ghastlier conflict.

Africa has been at the margins of policy for the US and its allies for decades. New events could push it back again. We must grasp this opportunity now – or risk losing it forever.

• The Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World, a faith-based, nonprofit group that battles hunger and poverty worldwide.

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