On this continent of hardship, the Internet revolution is a distant dream: only three percent of the population has a telephone line. In the past decade, AIDS has cut life expectancy from 50 to 47 years. Development aid has dropped 43 percent over the same period. Only 12 percent of the roads are paved.
But statistics fail to capture what Africans face as they strain against the gravity of poverty.
"Although I passed my school exams five years ago I could not continue my studies due to financial difficulties," says a young man writing to the advice columnist in the Kenyan Daily Nation newspaper. "I work as a houseboy and this makes me feel worthless, to the point that sometimes I wish I was never born.... Please help me before I give up living." Signed, S.W.
A world away from this ache, in the picturesque Canadian Rockies, leaders of the powerful Group of Eight (G-8) countries are gathered to discuss, among other things, a landmark economic recovery plan for Africa.
On the table is an innovative proposal conceived and written by African leaders. It's called the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), a kind of "Marshall Plan" for Africa, which, if implemented correctly, could bring great relief to the millions of men and women for whom every day can be a struggle.
At the heart of the "new partnership" is a deal whereby African governments become more accountable, ensuring good political and economic governance, in return for additional billions of dollars in annual investment, aid, and debt reduction. This give-and-take concept has never been so starkly outlined before, especially not by the aid recipients themselves.
"What is new is that Africans are taking responsibility for the first time. The promises are very good," says Robert Rotberg, director of Harvard's Program on Intrastate Conflict. "But we should be very skeptical about the possibility that Africans can deliver on good governance."
Just as the original Marshall Plan helped rebuild Europe after World War II, so the architects of NEPAD hope their plan will assist Africa in reconstructing itself after years of misrule, corruption, natural disasters, disease especially HIV/AIDS and brutal civil wars. Sub-Saharan Africa today has the largest concentration of people living below $1 a day. The number of poor here is expected to rise to 345 million by 2015 from 300 million in 1999.
Meanwhile, Africa receives less than 1 percent of the world's foreign investment, and much of this is concentrated in the extraction of natural resources, such as diamonds and oil. And much of the development aid $16.4 billion in 2000 is squandered, lost, or stolen, according to several sources.
NEPAD's chief architect, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and his counterparts from Nigeria, Senegal, and Algeria are in Kananaskis, Alberta, today lobbying for the plan and trying to convince the skeptics.
Their mission will not be easy. Problems of the developing world, which have often taken a backseat at G-8 summits, look likely to be pushed to the sidelines yet again, despite the dedication of summit host, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
In the wake of President Bush's major policy speech Monday on a future Palestinian state, focus has already shifted toward the Middle East. The IndiaPakistan standoff, a US proposal to boost nuclear nonproliferation projects in Russia, Japan's weak economic recovery, and the battle against terrorism are also on the agenda for the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the US.
Still, there seems to be a greater interest by donor nations than ever before. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac have both stressed the importance of addressing the African initiative now, and both have pledged to increase aid to the continent by 25 percent or more over the coming year. Last week, Japan's Prime Minister pledged $2 billion for education programs, and Mr. Bush offered some $600 million for education and AIDS.
NEPAD's ambitious mission is to cut in half the number of Africans living in extreme poverty by 2015. The plan includes strategies to develop and expand technology, agriculture, health, education, and infrastructure, and comes with a price tag of $64 billion per year. Some of the money will come from greater domestic savings, improvements in revenue collection, and encouragement of investment by Africans in their own countries. But most will come from the outside as loans, grants, and investment.
"Peer review" is the central component of NEPAD. It envisions Africa's 53 nations monitoring one another, and overseeing the reforms needed to attract the necessary trust from donors and loaners. Such reforms include creating independent judiciaries, instituting term limits, and insisting on parliamentary democracies. According to the plan, those leaders who fail to live up to the good governance standards will be denied benefits.
So, for example, any leader coming to power through a coup, stealing money from public coffers, or acting belligerently toward a neighbor could make that country ineligible for any funding and might even jeopardize other countries' benefits. The peer review mechanism has yet to be worked out as has the precise definition of "good governance" but there is early talk that such a review would be carried out every three years by a panel of five to seven African "elder statesmen."
"NEPAD is a program designed to benefit Africans first: to reenergize and reactivate ourselves. We are not doing this to please people outside Africa," Mr. Mbeki told reporters last week. He called on his fellow African leaders to move away from the "deification" of their office and to build partnerships with the developed world. "NEPAD calls for partners, not benefactors for Africa," he said. "On this basis Africans should be able to talk to each other and be accountable."
In Nigeria last week, President Olusegun Obasanjo added that if NEPAD were to eventually fail, "we will have no one to blame but ourselves."
But some observers are doubtful that African leaders, Mr. Obasanjo and Mbeki included, will ever be able to break down the destructive solidarity among them. In Zimbabwe, for example, despite international condemnation of what was seen as a rigged, undemocratic election last March, most African leaders applauded President Robert Mugabe's victory. Mbeki and Obasanjo were circumspect, and did not condemn the dictator outright.
"Peer review is the fundamental new element which separates NEPAD from past African development initiatives," says John Prendergast, Africa co-director at the International Crisis Group. "Africans theoretically will put pressure on their neighbors that are backsliding. But then the first test, the Zimbabwe elections, came along, even the architects realized how monumental a task this was."
Finally, many grass-roots African organizations complain that they were not consulted, and that many of the proposed projects are not those they would have chosen as priorities. "Most Africans have no clue what NEPAD is," says Oronto Douglas, a human rights activist in Nigeria. "This is like all other programs we have been handed down from the top whether that top is the World Bank or our own leaders."
Jerry Abjyi studied political science at Lagos University in Nigeria. He was the first in his family to go to college, and his siblings worked to put him there. Ten years later he is a night watchman at a rundown motel in Abuja. He takes an hour-long bus ride to work, sits all night in a dark hallway, and takes another hour-ride home. He makes $40 a month.
"I suppose I thought I would do more with myself," he says. "But there were no opportunities for me, as hard as I tried." He has been reading about NEPAD in the newspapers, but is not clear on the details. "I often think I will never get anything better in life," he admits. "But I am a young man, and I still have hopes. If some big program can help me, I bless it."