Blair's campaign for Africa

Prime Minister Blair will press President Bush for more funds at a meeting Tuesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The US was more generous last year than it has ever been toward Africa, giving $3.2 billion in foreign aid, or about $4.50 per sub-Saharan African. That's triple what it gave in 2000 - and is the most given by any nation.

But Tuesday in Washington British Prime Minister Tony Blair will ask President Bush for more - lots more. Mr. Blair wants rich countries to double their total aid to Africa to $25 billion a year.

Blair's plea, and Mr. Bush's resistance to it, highlight key gaps in their approaches. Blair's is fueled by a strong sense of moral obligation for rich nations to help poor ones - and a public more willing to spend government money on far-away problems. Bush aims to help generously on AIDS, but otherwise target aid where it won't be swallowed by corrupt or inept officials. It's one reason Washington gives foreign countries just 16 cents per $100 of gross domestic product, one of the rich world's lowest rates.

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"The US puts a greater emphasis on good government as a prerequisite for aid, says Steven Radelet of the Center for Global Development in Washington.

Yet there is common ground, especially on letting The World Bank cancel billions in developing-world debt. How Bush and Blair tackle their differences Tuesday will help determine the success of July's Africa-focused G-8 summit - and whether the continent can start moving past poverty.

Blair's passion for the continent is multilayered. First, there's his notion that "Christian social democracy" demands that the richest nations help the poorest, says Michael Peel, an associate fellow at The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Africa is the one continent that has grown poorer over the last 20 years, prompting Blair to highlight African poverty as "the fundamental moral challenge of our time." Such religion-infused rhetoric is unusual in Europe's secular society. And, although it is popular, Blair's critics call it a "missionary and patronizing approach," says Mr. Peel.

There are also Britain and continental Europe's traditionally strong ties to Africa, including a sense that aid is partly a restitution for colonial-era wrongs.

Momentum is growing in Britain and Europe for increasing aid to poor countries. Rocker Bob Geldof has planned a "Live 8" concert on July 2 with musicians like U2. A reprise of his 1985 "Live Aid" effort, this concert is less about fundraising than putting political pressure on G-8 leaders to help Africa.

Britain boosted its aid from about $1 billion in 2000 to about $1.5 billion in 2004. It's also using its chairmanships of the G-8 and European Union to focus attention on Africa and global warming. Last week, the EU's 25 members voted unanimously to nearly double assistance to poor countries over five years.

Bush also has passions about Africa. Even his opponents allow he's been more focused on the continent than most US presidents. From the start of his first term, a coalition of religious-right and African-American groups encouraged Bush to get involved in Sudan. This helped end Africa's longest war in January.

The continent's growing strategic importance is spurring more American interest, too. The US gets about 10 percent of its oil from Africa now. The US is also keeping a closer eye on African countries that could be terrorist havens.

The AIDS crisis has also prompted US action. Bush's AIDS program, now in its third year, is on track to spend $15 billion over five years, with money allocated for blood supplies, orphans, abstinence education, and other programs. It accounts for most of America's recent increase in aid to Africa. Bush's other signature' program, the Millennium Challenge Account, hasn't disbursed much yet, but it will increasingly steer aid to nations that are strengthening democracy and cutting corruption.

Britain and the US diverge on the issue of corruption. The American view is that, given widespread corruption, "dumping a pile of cash on them isn't going to help," says Stephen Morrison with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The British view is that even if some new aid money is stolen or wasted, it's "better than not having more aid, which you know would do no good," says Peel.

Then there's the question of how to fund any aid increase. Blair wants to set up something called the International Finance Facility. It would raise billions by having rich nations sell bonds, which would eventually need to be repaid. In the US, "it's seen as a gimmick" that would rob future aid budgets to fund a bigger current one, says Dr. Radelet.

Both countries also disagree on how to cancel the debts of African governments, which spend roughly $2 billion a year paying interest. Britain wants to sell part of the IMF's gold cache. But doing so would require Congressional approval, and the Bush team may not want to push for it. But both sides do have proposals out, says Dr. Morrison. And if Tuesday, "Bush and Blair said, 'We're going to fix this by July,'" he says, "they could fix it."

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