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Published: 6/8/2005

Can increased aid alone save a continent in peril?

BRITISH Prime Minister Tony Blair's grand effort to obtain greatly increased aid for Africa and the coming showdown on the subject at the G-8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland, on July 6 are making me nervous.

Africa's need is starkly clear. Its economic position in the world is weakening, rather than improving, for the most part. The suffering of its people, whether it be through displacement and starvation in Darfur, the plague of HIV/AIDS that has fallen on the continent, or through the general collapse of social services, makes it clear that something must be done.

It is said that Europe feels the pressure to act more than the United States. The African equivalent of the Haitian boat people hitting Florida is a poignant problem for European states, particularly the coastal ones. Given the permeability of European borders that is part of membership in the European Union, this is a problem that will grow, and it is a Europe-wide problem.

For the United States, it is more a moral problem. Some Africans get here, but in manageable numbers. The African heritage of part of the American population should in principle serve as a political pressure point for American governments to provide more aid to Africa; in practice it has had little impact.

Even a hard-headed neoconservative like the new World Bank president, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, says that Africa will be his top priority as head of that key institution, the world's largest development body. Mr. Wolfowitz says he wants to change the continent from one of despair to one of hope.

Other potent sources of pressure to act for the benefit of Africa now include a private, entertainment and liberal activist-based drive called Live8, led by Irish singer Bob Geldof. There are simultaneous concerts scheduled for July 2 in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Philadelphia, in some of the countries where the donor money is, days before the G-8 summit. The performers involved in this affair are not garage bands, but include Bono, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, 50 Cent, and Coldplay.

Assuming that the effort to double aid to Africa is successful, which may be the case whatever the Bush Administration decides to do, in some ways the real problem begins only then.

Africa is, in fact, in poor shape to use aid. Or, put more precisely, the parts of Africa that need aid most are utterly incapable of absorbing it. Or, again, to be very precise, security conditions must first be established in the neediest areas before aid can be applied effectively.

The dilemma can be eased to a degree by pulling the camera back and looking at the whole continent. Help the countries that are doing better and can be helped - the countries that can absorb aid effectively. There are plenty; they include Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, even parts of Sudan and Somalia, for that matter.

But in another sense, that is an unsatisfying cop-out. The really extreme need is in countries and areas that can scarcely absorb relief, let alone development aid. How does debt relief, reducing agricultural subsidies, lowering tariff barriers, or even straight cash grant aid help the Ituri region of northeast Congo?

United Nations peacekeepers can only go to the Ituri in armored cars. Some of them were killed there last year by rebels, some of whom practice cannibalism. Needless to say there are no schools or health facilities.

Critics of American and others' reticence to tackle Africa's problems say that pointing to corruption in Africa is simply to serve up an alibi for stinginess and greed, or, worse, racism. At the same time, how does one square pleas for aid from a country like Swaziland, whose 36-year-old king, Mswati III, just took his 11th wife? OK, call it cultural authenticity, call it preserving traditions, but 42.6 percent of Swaziland's pregnant women who went to prenatal clinics tested positive for HIV/AIDS. King Mswati, who presides over a poverty-stricken country of 1.1 million, spent $15 million on 11 of his palaces last year. Zimbabwe under 81-year-old Robert Mugabe is so bad it isn't even worth talking about.

In the end, Africa will probably get the new, greatly increased aid in July. The frightening part is that it may not change much, leaving the worst part of the continent's problems unaddressed.

I suppose there are never "last chances" in such matters. But there are rarely such drives as the one Tony Blair, Bob Geldof, and even Paul Wolfowitz have mounted this time. If the aid comes through, Africa must not blow it this time.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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