It's been a long campaign of persistent persuasion by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish rock star Bono. But finally, on Saturday, they won a victory for the world's poorest continent.
The finance ministers of the G-8, the wealthiest nations, decided to forgive 18 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, more than $40 billion of debt owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank.
The deal means G-8 taxpayers will be obligated by up to $8 billion to those finance institutions. It's a small price to pay to keep Africa from further backsliding into poverty, disease, and violent chaos.
President Bush could hardly say no to the deal. Many of the 18 nations can't pay their debts anyway. Also, because of a new US strategy to try to keep impoverished nations from becoming terrorist havens, Africa is prime turf. Most of all, Bush couldn't resist the pleas of Mr. Blair, who chairs the G-8 this year, because the US recently won about $33 billion in debt relief for Iraq from 19 nations.
That relief was justified because today's Iraqis should not bear the so-called "odious" loans obtained by Saddam Hussein, which were squandered on arms and personal gain. Likewise, Africa's former dictators left many odious debts, many given by the IMF and World Bank during the cold war when the West saw a need to bolster its anticommunist "friends."
This new debt forgiveness won't come easy, nor should it. The West has been justifiable reluctant to help Africa because much aid money has been lost due to corruption and mismanagement. This new relief comes with strict targets for better governance and curbs on graft. Limited debt relief in the 1990s showed that some African nations have wisely spent money on basic services, such as schools, that would have gone to pay foreign debt.
This G-8 decision isn't the end of it. Blair wants this wealthy club to agree to double African aid at its July 6-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Bush already has tripled US aid to Africa to $3.2 billion and promised last week to "do more down the road." Another $3 billion from the US could spur the entire G-8 to follow suit.
Both Blair and Bush could leave a strong legacy by such actions. Their leadership in two anti-terrorist wars needs a corresponding leadership in uplifting Africa. Just as they are trying to bring civil rights and democracy to the Middle East, a well-managed strategy to help Africa keep pace with the world's economic development would go far to reduce its patterns of conflict. The long-term payoffs would make today's costs seem minor.