Africa Still Facing an Uphill Battle

Glimmers of Hope Amid Wars and Poverty

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ROME, JUNE 21, 2003 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II doesn't want the world to forget about Africa. In last Tuesday's audience with bishops from sub-Saharan countries of Burkina Faso and Niger, the Pope expressed his concern for the difficult living conditions affecting the population. He also made an appeal to the international community to help in a concrete way the development of these nations.



These two countries are not alone in their need for help. Africa as a whole presents a sorry mix of civil wars, endemic poverty and dysfunctional political systems. In recent days the British daily Guardian and its Sunday sister publication The Observer have published a series of articles on the troubled continent.

On June 15 the Observer's foreign affairs editor, Peter Beaumont, reported on the latest death toll from Liberia. His description of the turmoil there, he noted, would have been equally valid for Congo, Burundi, Ivory Coast or southern Sudan. Mauritania, meanwhile, saw a failed coup in recent weeks, and Zimbabwe has been violently suppressing political protests.

Since 1970, African has had more than 30 armed conflicts and accounted for more than half of all war-related deaths worldwide, according to U.N. data. The continent has also produced 9.5 million refugees.

The average African lives on less than $2 a day; three-quarters of the world's poorest countries are African. The continent is also afflicted with HIV/AIDS, with infection rates running at over 30% in countries such as Zimbabwe.

The outlook isn't completely grim, however. A commentary by Frank Chikane, described by The Observer as a key aide to South African President Thabo Mbeki, was optimistic. He said that a new generation of African leaders has emerged and that citizens are no longer prepared to tolerate dictatorships or poverty. Chikane cited as a positive development the formation last July of the African Union, along with an economic plan, Nepad, to spur development.

Many challenges remain, he admitted. "Yet achievements over the past few years show that Africa's citizens and the new generation of African leaders are intent on making a difference." He points to the recent successful presidential elections in Nigeria, and the transfer of power in Kenya after a 24-year rule by President Daniel Arap Moi. In the economic field Chikane strongly criticized Western policies, such as unfair trade barriers and domestic agricultural subsidies, which hinder Africa's development efforts.

Hurt by subsidies

Barbara Stocking, director of the British charity group Oxfam, gave some concrete examples of the harm such policies cause. In a Feb. 18 article in the Financial Times, Stocking noted that the U.S. government's subsidies for 25,000 American cotton farmers last year lowered world prices for cotton by one quarter. The result was that west African countries lost $200 million in foreign exchange earnings, and 11 million cotton-producing households suffered increased poverty.

The European Union is no better, said Stocking. It spends $40 billion a year subsidizing the production and export of vast surpluses of cereals, dairy products and sugar. As a result, small farmers in Africa are being driven out of local and international markets.

Economic development is just what Africa needs, explained Alex de Waal in the Guardian on June 16. De Waal is program director for the Commission for HIV/AIDS and governance in Africa, and a director of Justice Africa.

He asked why the entire African continental economy is no larger than Spain's, at $580 billion. In addition to the often-cited causes such as low prices for agricultural exports, corruption, lack of infrastructure and the economic impact of AIDS, he mentions the division of Africa into many small states is also a serious problem.

Small countries make life easier for large Western companies, which can more easily get their way. Aid organizations also came in for criticism for manipulating the destinies of pocket-sized nations, through a lack of openness in the awarding of contracts and by dictating matters from "behind closed doors in Washington or Brussels." De Waal argued that Africa sorely needs regional economic integration.

A June 10 commentary by David Ignatius in the Washington Post pointed to another problem: the lack of investment. While Africa has around 10% of the world's population, in 2001 it attracted only about 1% of global foreign investment, mostly in the petroleum or mining sectors. Aid is important, but much more so is the need for economic growth through the development of the private sector, he argued.

How to administer aid

The question of aid prompts many opinions. A Global Agenda article published April 23 on the Web site of The Economist noted that while the amounts promised in recent international conferences have been large, measured in billions of dollars, they are small in terms of the wealth of developed nations. In 2002, official aid from the main donor countries averaged 0.23% of their gross national income.

One thing poor countries need to do, The Economist says, is to use more wisely the aid they do receive. It cited research by the World Bank showing that aid can be effective in reducing poverty, but only when given to countries with sound economic management and government institutions.

The article noted that not all the problems lie in the recipient nations. Much aid is "tied," that is, given on condition it is spent on imports from the donor country, which often have little relevance for local needs.

Donor problems were also noted by World Bank president James Wolfensohn in an article Sept. 26 in the Financial Times. He cited the case of the west African nation of Guinea, where the cost of building a primary school can range from $130 to as much as $878 a square meter, depending on the donor country managing the project. For the same amount, one donor could build seven times more schools than another, he observed.

A commentary by Camilla Cavendish in the May 29 London Times backed the need to ensure aid is used well. Cavendish, who once worked at the World Bank, observed: "Many of the most corrupt African regimes are kept in power by aid." The perennial problem of famine in Ethiopia, for instance, is partially due to the fact that all land is state-owned. Cavendish accused the Ethiopian government of shelving plans to privatize land "because this is an essential part of the patronage that keeps it in control."

John Paul II's 1995 postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Africa," in Nos. 113-14, called on African governments to adopt "the right priorities for the exploitation and distribution of often scarce national resources in such a way as to provide for people's basic needs, and to ensure an honest and equitable sharing of benefits and burdens." The document had harsh words for "corrupt government leaders who, in connivance with domestic or foreign private interests, divert national resources for their own profit and transfer public funds to private accounts in foreign banks." The Pope also reminded the rich that they "must become clearly aware of their duty to support the efforts of the countries struggling to rise from their poverty and misery."

He also urged the continent to seek a peaceful solution to its problems, and criticized the arms trade (No. 118). "Those who foment wars in Africa by the arms trade are accomplices in abominable crimes against humanity."

Fixing Africa's complex problems will be a long-term task. A good start would be a more serious commitment by the First World to the continent's progress.