MOST Americans will pay scant attention to the Asia-Africa Conference under way in Indonesia. But it is worth noting because it shows that nations on those two continents are doing exactly what developed nations want the Third World to do: find a way on their own to improve the quality of people's lives.
This is the 50th annual summit, representing more than 100 nations, and it can boast recognizable improvements since it began meeting in 1955. Most notably, in the last decade, trade between Asia and African has increased by about 10 percent each year. Indonesia foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda wants the continents to better understand each other's potential for direct trade and investment.
China and India are only two countries represented in the summit, and while few think of those Asian economic powerhouses as undeveloped, they still have a lot of untapped potential. China was right behind the United States as the world's second largest economy in 1999, but between 50 million and 100 million of its rural workers subsist on part-time, low-wage jobs. And while the demand for India's high-tech exports remains strong, more than a third of its population is impoverished.
Numerous other countries on both continents could benefit from economic improvements fostered by larger, more economically strong nations. So it's important that at this year's summit, Africa and Asia further cement their relationships as they aim to institutionalize links between them.
Fortunately, the continents recognize that more than just economic issues are at stake. The tsunami that devastated much of Aceh in Indonesia only four months ago has forced African and Asian leaders to examine ways to better cope with natural disasters.
Interestingly enough, with the exception of the Palestinians, every one of the 106 countries on the continents is independent. "I think this gathering is also important for us to strengthen our solidarity with the Palestinian people," Indonesia's prime minister said.
None of this means that aid for African or Asian countries will end. But it's encouraging that heads of state in Asia and in Africa know how vital it is that they try to help themselves, and that this conference marks a milestone in the serious economic, social, and political issues their countries face.