Many Africans were disappointed, others quietly accepted what were perceived as potential future gains, as the United Nations special session on Africa's critical economic crisis ended Sunday night. Following the marathon session, a number of questions remain. Will Africa be able or willing to bring about major economic reforms, and will the financial support of the industrial nations be forthcoming? Just as important, is how the new Western guidelines will affect future relationships between the world's economic giants and impoverished Africa.
Essentially, the Africans and the world's major donor countries have agreed to disagree.
In a delicately worded compromise document, approved unanimously, the world's nations chartered a five-year program to revive Africa's devastated economies.
But the United States and the majority of the world's donor nations made no specific commitments on aid or debt relief. They simply agreed to commit themselves to ``make every effort to provide sufficient resources'' to support Africa.
The negotiations marked a major shift in strategy for both Africa and the donor states. Throughout the session, the industrial nations, led by the US, made it clear that increased aid would depend on major structural reform in the African continent's economies. An emphasis was placed, particularly by the US, France, and Britain, on private sector initiatives.
``Let's be candid, we asked for a commitment and it was not forthcominmg,'' says Ide Oumarou, secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). ``We did not expect this to be a pledging conference, but what we have received in the way of proposals is far less concrete than what we expected . . . .''
Senegal's foreign minister Ibrahim Fall, disagreed. Stressing the fact that a compromise document had emerged, he told the press that ``the African group is satisfied.''
Although the document is not binding on member governments, it will serve as a focal point for future aid and debt relief for Africa. It includes measures to deal with food emergencies and drought, and it details a recovery program for agricultural production and for the continent's trade, finance, and educational needs.
The mere fact that the special UN session, the first such session devoted to a regional economic problem in the organization's 40-year history, did not fall apart in chaos was viewed as a triumph by some. For, from the beginning, the Africans and the donor nations were split on the session's goals.
At issue were the details of a 211-page document, prepared by the OAU, which outlined a comprehensive program for Africa's economic reform. The major stumbling block was the document's call for Western industrialized states to provide Africa with $45.6 billion in additional assistance over the next five years, and to forgive debts amounting from $35 billion to $55 billion over the same period.
Officials from donor nations, led by the US, had made it clear that they would resist making specific commitments for additional aid. The $45.6 billions requested by the Africans would amount to a 130 percent increase over present levels of aid. Debt relief would be considered case by case, one Western official said.
Notable exceptions were Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, all of which agreed to substantial African debt relief.
Even without external assistance, Africa's recovery program would not ``go back into the cooler,'' says Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria's minister of external affairs. ``We are not seeking to make Africa a charity case,'' he added, noting that more than 70 percent ($82.5 billion) of the resources needed to solve Africa's wrenching economic problems was to be provided by the Africans themselves.
There was some skepticism among Western nations as to how Africa would be able to finance its share of the cost.
``Different states have different programs,'' Mr. Akinyemi said. Nigeria was reducing oil subsidies, imposing a surcharge on import levies, and channeling resources into agricultural. He also implied that a trade embargo could be imposed on the West.
Many African delegates were bitter at the role and the attitude of the US Secretary of State George Shultz who stunned the gathering when he said -- after calling on Africans to reject ``discredited orthodoxies'' about state planning and ``give greater scope to individual initiative'' -- that ``Africans have learned that responsibility for their economic well being rests squarely with themselves.''
A number of Africans called the speech ``totally reactionary.''
``We do not need a lesson in Reaganomics,'' said one delegate.
Despite such private expressions, this special UN session -- with the exception of statements from Soviet and East-bloc delegates -- was remarkably free of ideological polemics and rhetorical debate. The session devoted extensive time to Africa's real challenges.