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|Africa Commission's Uphill Task|
By UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has been chairing the first meeting of his Commission for Africa on Tuesday.
The 16-member commission has been launched to tackle the myriad economic problems facing the continent.
Africa has fallen dramatically behind other developing regions, with declining growth rates, increasing poverty, and falling life expectancy. Meanwhile, declining aid from rich countries and closed markets for African goods have made things worse.
The economic problems of sub-Saharan Africa are well known. It was Tony Blair himself, in October 2001, who called Africa's situation "a scar on the conscience of the world".
Since then, if anything, conditions have deteriorated. Africa is the only region of the developing world which is no better off than it was 25 years ago.
While rapid growth in China and now India is lifting millions out of poverty, Africa has stagnated, even going backwards in terms of foreign trade and investment.
The spread of the Aids epidemic across the continent, and the large number of conflicts, has also contributed to its economic stagnation - as has a reputation for corruption and poor governance.
In recent years, many development experts have highlighted bad governments as the key problem which explains the low rate of African growth.
For example, 40 years ago, Nigeria was much richer than South Korea, a country with the same population.
But Nigeria's oil wealth was squandered, while South Korea invested in its people and targeted key export industries in the West.
Now Korea, a leading export nation, has a per capita income 20 times higher than Nigeria's.
And while both found it difficult to make the transition to full democracy, Korea did not suffer the wholesale looting of the national treasury which Nigeria's military rulers inflicted upon it, leaving it generally judged to be one of the world's most corrupt countries.
These days, the World Bank, the IMF, and the US tend to argue that rich countries should only lend to African states that have shown themselves competent to use the money wisely.
Some of the African members of Mr Blair's commission, especially South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Tanzania's President Benjamin Mkapa, are prime movers behind the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which has promised peer review and transparency in exchange for more investment.
Opening up markets
At the same time, though, many African countries accuse Western lenders of hypocrisy.
They argue that if the West opened its markets fully to African producers, especially of agricultural products like sugar, cotton, and beef, they would not need so much aid.
And they reject the argument that foreign direct investment will only come when they deregulate their economies.
Countries such as South Korea, they point out, kept a tight rein on investment for many years.
"For 20 years (Western finance ministers) have been pressing poor countries to privatise their public services and open their markets to foreign trade - and Africa is still poor," said Fikre Zedwie of Action Aid Ethiopia.
"It is no good talking about helping Africa, while hanging on to these outdated and discredited policies."
In fact, they point out that the EU spends more per cow in agricultural subsidies than they do per person to help Africans.
And Western campaigners have long argued that the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa are paying back more in debt repayments than they are receiving in aid - reducing their ability to fund more health and education programmes.
Mr Blair's Commission for Africa will not be the first time in recent years that Western governments have turned their attention to Africa.
The UN and the World Bank have been targeted Sub-Saharan Africa with aid programmes, especially related to Aids.
And the United States has its own initiatives for Africa, including the Millennium Challenge Account, and the Aids fund.
Mr Blair says he is modelling the commission on the Brandt report, which in the 1970s put development back on the political agenda with its recommendation that rich countries give 0.7% of their GDP in foreign aid - an objective that few have ever reached.
The plethora of commissions, and their failure to achieve change, makes some sceptical.
"This commission is a diversionary tactic designed to draw attention away from 30 years of broken promises on Africa," Peter Hardstaff of the World Development Movement said.
Britain leading the world
More scepticism arises from the timing.
It is due to report in one year's time, when Britain will hold both the Presidency of the EU and the G8, with a summit scheduled for the UK in June or July - just around the time expected for the next General Election.
Leading UK, European and African politicians as well as UN officials are taking part.
However, a significant omission is any heavyweight American with influence in the Bush administration.
As Bob Geldof, one of the driving forces behind the commission, told BBC News, it is time to move "from charity to justice."
"Africa's agony has been compounded by the chill winds of the globalised world, which has effectively excluded it further," Mr Geldof wrote recently.
"If this turns out to be another anodyne and meaningless development tract, I'm out of there.
"And I will weep."
Reprinted with the kind permission of the BBC. Link to original source
Copyright © BBC News Online
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