Giving Africa a Hand

Giving Africa a Hand

Activists must push for more debt relief for all impoverished countries in Africa.


Leaders of the G-8 countries spent the better part of June clapping one another on the back for writing off the debts of eighteen impoverished nations, fourteen of them in Africa. “The most comprehensive statement that finance ministers have ever made on the issues of debt, development, health and poverty,” British Chancellor Gordon Brown called it. Brown is right, but while the $40 billion write-off is an impressive victory for debt-relief campaigners, it also highlights how much remains to be done. The G-8 plan affects less than two dozen of 100 nations that, according to the United Nations, need total debt forgiveness in order to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty and disease by 2015. Africa’s debt stood at $295 billion in a recent UN accounting–after the continent had made repayments of $550 billion, including interest, on $540 billion in loans it had received over the previous three decades.

Getting to the new agreement on debt relief wasn’t easy: It took two decades of strategic campaigns, beginning with small NGOs and citizen groups, then leading to the involvement of such celebrities as Pope John Paul II and Bono, and culminating in the Jubilee debt-forgiveness campaign, initiated by religious communities in the 1990s to shift the debt debate. Even so, the G-8 plan requires nations to agree to privatization and deregulation schemes that are guaranteed to please preachers of the neoliberal development gospel but to dismay supporters of African sovereignty and human-based development. Moreover, the emphasis on the need to fight corruption to qualify for relief, expressed by the World Bank’s new leader, former Bush Administration official Paul Wolfowitz, could be used as an excuse for doing nothing beyond what’s already been agreed to. As Columbia professor Jeffrey Sachs noted recently, a number of desperately poor African countries, including Ghana, Senegal and Malawi, are ranked as less corrupt than fast-growing countries in Asia. Clearly, African development requires more than ousting greedy officials.

That “more” goes to the question of how to vault Africa, with its nearly 300 million people and vast natural resources, onto a path of sustainable economic growth. For the African countries that will benefit from G-8 relief, the funds that will become available for spending at home, instead of paying debt service, amount to a little more than $1 billion a year. This compares with the roughly $3 billion it would cost to underwrite plans for free schooling already approved by international lenders and donors. What is needed is money–lots of it. But although incoming G-8 chairman Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain has made fighting poverty in Africa a top priority of his tenure, Washington has flatly refused to join Europe in pledging to double African aid.

Even the importance of more aid pales in comparison with what a fairer trade climate could accomplish. The best way to assist Africa’s economic development would be to open up Western markets for agricultural exports by cutting subsidies to US and European farmers, particularly large-scale producers of cotton and sugar. There is great resistance, on both sides of the Atlantic, to cutting subsidies, however, and the G-8 finance ministers’ communiqué on debt relief was, as the BBC put it, “suitably vague” on the subject. EU proposals to cut sugar subsidies by 39 percent by 2008, unveiled in June, are only a modest beginning.

The global debt-relief movement deserves thanks for what it has accomplished. Now activists must return to the fight, pushing not only for more debt relief for all impoverished countries but also for other initiatives for Africa. So long viewed by outsiders as an exotic object of fascination or an opportunity for exploitation, Africa must take its rightful place in the world.

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