SALT LAKE CITY — When this newspaper sent me to Africa as a young foreign correspondent in the 1950s, only two countries in the sub-Saharan bulk of the continent were independent - Liberia and Ethiopia. When I left after a six-year assignment, the region had been overtaken by a political revolution, catapulting most of it out of colonial rule by Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal into self-government and hopefully freedom, leaving South Africa still to come.
It was a time of excitement, hope, and promise.
In successive years, American leaders spoke grandly of the opportunities. "For too many years," said Richard Nixon, "Africa has been regarded as a remote and mysterious continent ... the emergence of a free and independent Africa is as important to us [Americans] as it is to the people of that continent."
Declared John F. Kennedy: "To those peoples in the huts and villages struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves."
But over the years, the promise of Africa has not been fulfilled and it has received far less interest from most US leaders than other parts of the world. It could be that is about to change, not because the promise has been reignited, but because the problems of Africa have become so immense and threatening.
It is, for instance, the focal point of the international AIDS epidemic. In some African countries, the disease is wiping out virtually an entire generation, leaving behind millions of parentless orphans. They number perhaps 11 million already, and officials project that there will be between 25 million and 30 million in five years. Aside from the health problems caused by such massive loss of life, and the social problems derived from support of the survivors, the elimination of a productive generation of Africans is an enormous setback to economic development.
Therefore it was good news when wealthy nations agreed last weekend to cancel $40 billion of debt owed by a string of poor countries. Most of them are in Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. The agreement, reached in London by the finance ministers of the G-8, (the eight major industrial nations: US, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia), will enable the poor countries relieved of debt repayment to use the money for health, education, and the relief of poverty in their respective lands. Each of them must institute measures to prevent corruption, a problem that has been endemic. In turn, the G-8 countries will cover the debts owed to the global lending institutions that made the loans.
Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has been key in shining the spotlight on Africa's economic problems. The topic will be center stage at a G-8 summit in Scotland next month. Mr. Blair is also pressing for the world's wealthy countries to double their aid to Africa.
In a broadcast to African countries over the Voice of America last week, President Bush said: "Africa is a continent of promise, and the United States wants to help the people of Africa realize the brighter future they deserve."
But while the president has supported debt forgiveness, and seeks to expand trade with Africa, he hasn't signed on to double foreign aid.
Mr. Bush's appointee to the presidency of the World Bank, Paul Wolfowitz, is visiting four African countries this month - Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and South Africa. Mr. Wolfowitz has declared that reducing poverty in Africa is his top priority. He is seeking to learn firsthand from African leaders and communities how economic development to their region can be increased.
There are both moral and pragmatic reasons for easing Africa's litany of problems ranging from wars and disease to poverty and hunger.
As Kennedy said, the US should help Africa's poor "not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If the free society cannot help the many who are poor, it can never save the few who are rich."
But with the advent of international terrorism there is also a realization that poor and underdeveloped countries are breeding grounds for discontent and the fostering of hate-filled terrorists. A commission set up by Blair to analyze Africa's challenges warned that inaction is a potential threat to global security. "We are storing up trouble for the future," it said. "The longer Africa's problems are left unaddressed, the worse they will get."
The problems are immense. The neglect has been great. Hopefully the time has come to recognize the importance of Africa's needs.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.