Tracking Hope in Jungle of Woes

A continent rife with problems, from AIDS to graft, can find some signs of progress

ON a continent where news is often grim -- economies slipping backward, AIDS spreading, educational gains slowing, and hunger rising in many countries -- the task of making progress the rule rather than the exception is a major challenge.

But there are important, positive trends over the past 35 years, notes Carol Lancaster, a former assistant professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, writing in a recent publication of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Those trends include: Primary school enrollments have increased; Africans on average are better fed, healthier, and live longer; and roads, ports, and telecommunications have expanded.

Today, Africa is showing some signs of progress, and a potential for more, say Western diplomats, aid officials, and Africans of various backgrounds. There is no drought of ideas on how economic recovery can be achieved. Some of the ideas have little to do with money. Rather, they involve a shift of attitudes.

*More than half of sub-Saharan African nations have embarked on economic reforms in recent years, with some countries showing modest gains.

President Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's former rebel leader, inherited one of Africa's poorest economies when he took over in 1991. Eritrea's war for independence and years of socialist economic planning devastated the country. He has made some reforms, relaxing most state controls on the economy.

Greeting a visitor to his presidential office, he explains his priorities: Instead of focusing on the minority urban elite, as most African leaders have for their power base, Mr. Meles is intent on helping the rural poor.

''The destiny of this country depends on the effective mobilization of the rural population,'' he says. ''The politics is based on that, and we hope to base the economics on that, too,'' he says.

While he admits this approach is alienating urban elites, he says that in the long run, they too will benefit from improvements in rural areas, as farmers earn more money and buy more from cities.

Despite claims by Ethiopia's opposition to the contrary, the economy is ''90 percent free'' of state control, aid officials say. They also give Meles high marks for his reluctance to accept international aid until he sees whether it will fit his priority of helping rural residents.

*In at least one country, Zaire, government corruption is increasingly criticized. There has been a groundswell of Zairean opposition in the past several years to the nearly 30-year rule of President Mobutu Sese Seko. He is condemned by many Zaireans and Western diplomats as one of Africa's most corrupt rulers.

''The change we want is a change of mentality,'' says Paul Kelengai, an unemployed university graduate who studied electrical engineering. ''We have a dictatorship. We want a change from egotists serving only themselves.''

Government corruption in Africa retards economic development, encouraging would-be investors to take their money elsewhere, says former Nigerian head of state Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo.

*Even though AIDS has swept through parts of Africa, threatening to retard development, an AIDS awareness campaign in Zaire and a few other countries has shown that behavior can be changed.

*Population trends are not irreversible, as Kenyans have proved.

Until the mid-1980s Kenya had one of the world's highest population growth rates, but it has begun to turn things around. Fertility rates have dropped -- about 20 percent -- between 1988 and 1993. That means the average number of children born to a Kenyan woman has fallen from 6.7 to 5.4. (It remains about 6.5 in the rest of Africa.)

''The message is, if it can happen in Kenya, it can happen anywhere,'' says Ayo Ajai, director of the Kenya office of the New York-based Population Council, a private research organization. Mr. Ajai and other analysts attribute the drop in fertility rates -- almost all of it in urban areas -- to increasing education of women and financial support by aid donors to make contraceptives and information available.

So far only a few countries, including Kenya and Zimbabwe, have made major gains in slowing population growth. But a number of other countries have at least started programs recently.

While the population of sub-Saharan Africa has been growing at 3 percent since 1980, during the same time, the economies of most of its countries has been growing at less than 2 percent on average, World Bank statistics show.

The numbers signify a backward economic trend.

If present trends continue, 50 percent of sub-Saharan Africans will be living in poverty by the year 2000, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

*Food production in Africa steadily increased through the 1980s, along with an expansion of land under cultivation. But declining economies leveled off production and brought a slight decline in the early '90s. As a result, with populations continuing to rise, less food per African has been produced in the early '90s.

In the same period, the amount of land under cultivation appears to have peaked. Many of the new gains in food production will have ''to come from increased yield per unit of land'' says Alex McCalla, director of agriculture and natural resources for the Washington-based World Bank. ''And that doesn't come easily,'' he says.

But food production is still rising in much of West Africa, says John Sanders, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind. Mr. Sanders, who regularly visits West Africa and is writing a book about the region, says new seed varieties, greater use of chemical fertilizers, and better management have brought major production increases in some crops.

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