LONDON, MARCH 19, 2005 ( A report published March 11 on Africa's economic situation has renewed the call for greater attention to the continent's plight. "African poverty and stagnation is the greatest tragedy of our time," stated the Commission for Africa, which released the document.

The commission, made up of 17 experts from the public and private sector, was formed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in February 2004. The first semester of this year sees the United Kingdom chairing the Group of Eight, and in the second semester it will take over the presidency of the European Union. Blair wants to use these opportunities to focus attention on Africa. As well, in September the United Nations will review the implementation of the development goals set out five years ago in the Millennium Summit.

The report calls for a partnership between Africa and the developed world. The commission observes that the problems facing Africa consist in a series of "vicious circles which reinforce one another." Overcoming these interlocking issues requires a "big push" on multiple fronts, it says.

The price tag for breaking out of the vicious circles is big. The commission estimates an additional $25 billion per year in aid will be needed. This can be progressively implemented by 2010. After a progress review, a second increase in aid should then follow, with a further $25 billion a year to be implemented by 2015.


"Africa's history over the last fifty years has been blighted by two areas of weakness," notes the report. The deficiencies are in the area of designing and delivering policies, and in accountability. The causes of these problems are many and overcoming them will not be rapid. Some of the underlying factors include a lack of incentives, poor information, technical inability, untrained staff and lack of money.

To help overcome the first weakness the report calls for donors to make a major investment in Africa's education system, particularly in science and technology. Another much needed step is to help build systems and staff in local, national and pan-African organizations.

Regarding the aid given by donors the report called for greater support for the national priorities of African governments, rather than concentrating on giving priority to their own procedures and priorities.

The second weakness, accountability, needs to be resolved above all by the African leaders themselves, according to the commission. Steps needed include broadening the participation of ordinary people in government processes through strengthening institutions like parliaments, local authorities, trades unions, the justice system and the media.

Donors can also play a part by helping to put in place budgetary processes "so that the people of Africa can see how money is raised and where it is going." This greater transparency will help combat corruption, "which African governments must root out."

To counter corruption, the report calls for the repatriation of money and assets stolen by crooked leaders. This requires cooperation on the part of foreign banks in order to identify suspicious accounts. As well, overseas companies need to make their payments in a way that is open to public scrutiny. "Without progress in governance, all other reforms will have limited impact," the report concludes.

Peace and health

Resolving the violent conflicts that have afflicted Africa so many times in recent years is another urgent priority. In many countries this strife is the biggest obstacle to development, the report states.

Achieving this requires action in a number of areas: using aid to tackle the causes of conflict; improving the management of government incomes from national resources in order to avoid conflict over sharing benefits; and controlling the trade in small arms. Greater support is also needed for the United Nations and African organizations to help them in their tasks of mediation and peacekeeping.

In the area of economic aid the report lays out a number of priorities. Setting up schools and health clinics for the poorest people is urgent, as a matter of "basic human rights and social justice." It is also sound economics, as a healthy and skilled work force will be more productive. This will be costly, and requires major assistance from outside.

Elimination of diseases is also vital, particularly tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. This involves not only investment in clinics but also funding for water supply and sanitation, and financial aid so that the poor can receive treatment when they do not have the ability to pay for themselves.

Overcoming poverty also requires increasing the rate of economic growth. The commission called for putting in place reforms that will stimulate outside investment and unleashing entrepreneurial activity by Africans themselves. Achieving this will depend in part on major investments in economic infrastructure, which in turn hinges on significant increase by donors in aid levels.

Trade also needs to grow. For their part African countries should reduce and simplify the tariff systems that hinder the movement of goods between themselves, the commission recommends. Excessive bureaucracy and unwieldy customs procedures must also be streamlined. The panel also calls on richer nations to dismantle the barriers against the export of African produce, and reduce agricultural subsidies in their own countries.

Timely action

Tony Blair, writing in the pages of the Guardian newspaper on March 12, noted that the report does not make comfortable reading in many capitals, due to its clear language on the problem of corruption in Africa itself and the broken promises on trade by the developed world.

He declared himself an optimist, however, on the prospects outlined in the report, as it "comes up with specific, practical and costed solutions" for Africa's problems, building on what is already succeeding.

In a commentary on the report published March 11 in the Financial Times, Nigeria's finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, praised the initiatives laid out. Nevertheless, he noted that there have been many other plans, reports and programs seeking to improve Africa.

"Africans expect these clearheaded analyses of the challenges facing Africa to be followed by something else -- something that failed to materialize after the publication of previous reports: timely and consistent implementation," the minister concluded.

Signs of hope

Recent signs indicated, in fact, that the developed world is taking steps to help poorer nations. The World Bank's body for providing soft loans to developing countries, the International Development Association, received pledges that would increase its funds by around 25%, the Guardian reported Feb. 24.

"IDA is the lifeline for many of the world's poorest people, and this increase in IDA resources represents a major step forward in the international community's efforts to fight poverty and achieve the millennium development goals," said World Bank chief James Wolfensohn.

And earlier this month Britain announced it will no longer demand specific commitments from poor countries to privatize state industries or liberalize trade in return for aid, according to a March 2 report in the Financial Times.

Hilary Benn, international development minister, told the newspaper that instead of making such policies a prerequisite for aid the United Kingdom would agree long-term poverty reduction plans and benchmarks based on results rather than policies.

The Vatican recently stressed the importance of reducing poverty in developing countries. Per capita incomes in the sub-Saharan countries did not increase at all in the last two decades of the 20th century, noted Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a speech Feb. 11 before the U.N. Commission for Social De velopment.

Archbishop Crepaldi also spoke of the need for a "big push" on the part of rich countries. The eradication of poverty, he said, has become a "moral imperative" and in order to achieve it "an international sense of social justice" needs to be formed.