Eye on Africa: Down but not out

Africa runs the risk of slipping further away from the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals without substantial improvement in political leadership, trade practices and aid flow levels, experts meeting in Athens warned this week. Speaking at a conference on African development organized by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) at the Zappeion Hall on Wednesday, panelists noted that 30,000 children die from the consequences of extreme poverty every day while each year 4.8 million children die from preventable diseases before their fifth birthday. «At the current pace, sub-Saharan Africa will need 100 to 150 years to meet the UN goals,» said Dapo Oyewole, executive director at the London-based Center for African Policy and Peace Strategy. Leaders meeting at a UN world summit in New York last week complained about scant progress in meeting pledges to reduce poverty and underdevelopment. Participants at the UN’s Millennium Summit five years ago pledged to halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 and to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by the same time. Among the aims were universal primary education and halting the AIDS pandemic. Skeptics say the goals are overambitious and impractical. True, the UN goals seem out of reach at the moment. But all is not gloom. «Many things are going right in Africa,» Oyewole said, stressing that the spread of multi-party democracy in recent years shows that, for the first time, there is change on the ground. According to a G8 communiqué on Africa, more than two-thirds of sub-Saharan countries have had democratic elections. Mozambique and Namibia recently saw peaceful transition of political power and democratic elections are set to take place in Tanzania in October. «We may be down but we are not out,» Oyewole commented. Macroeconomic management has also improved. Inflation is just a fifth of the level of a decade ago, while average growth in 16 African economies hovers over 4 percent, higher than in most developed countries. Self-help Optimists have a new big reason to take heart. Launched four years ago, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, better known as NEPAD, signals Africa’s determination to stand on its own feet and provides some extra clout for badly needed reforms. The NEPAD agenda is daunting. It calls for nothing less than African ownership and responsibility for development; the promotion of democracy, human rights and good governance; self-reliant development to reduce dependency on aid; disease prevention; and, of course, debt cancellation. But with a bar so high, success becomes relative. «Transformation processes of this kind can take decades or even generations. In the case of Africa this is an even more complex task, given that it is a continent of 53 countries that have to be transformed,» Jannie Momberg, South African ambassador to Greece, told the conference, which was held in cooperation with the British and the African embassies in Athens. To its detractors, the much-heralded NEPAD, just like its founding father, the African Union (which replaced the Organization for African Unity), is yet another useless talking shop. They point at failure to react to extensive fraud in Zimbabwe’s March elections that saw President Robert Mugabe, 81, holding on to power for the 25th consecutive year. Advocates say NEPAD is a sign of more profound change. «Africans have decided it is time they took charge of their own destiny,» Momberg said, suggesting that the African «victim mentality» is changing as governments are slowly turning from scapegoating and trying to put their houses, individually and collectively, in order. Finger pointing Many, including most African politicians, tend to blame present woes on the continent’s colonial legacy – often discarding the fact that some of these states have been free for decades while others succeeded in becoming viable within a generation after independence. They believe that Africa is poor and vulnerable because it has a high degree of dependence that is perpetuated by the IMF and the World Bank. Others say the causes of poverty are inadequate integration in the world economy and dysfunctional or corrupt governments that put the brakes on development. The truth is, despite criticism, donations from the West keep coming. Aid flow to Africa was over $23 billion in 2003 and is expected to rise to $44 billion in 2010 and $61 billion in 2015. Still, experts say that is not enough. «Although this will be a significant increase, it will still be short of the amount required for Africa to meet the Millennium Development Goals,» Momberg said, noting that $50 to $75 billion in aid flows per annum will be necessary to meet the target. Analysts argue that if the West really wants to help lift African states out of their misery it must dismantle trade barriers on goods where these countries have a comparative advantage, meaning mostly agricultural produce, and scrap subsidies to its own farmers. That would allow African states to expand their exports and integrate further into the global economy. Too much aid can also be counterproductive, as it often ends up spoiling unreformed governments that become dependent on foreign handouts. Some experts claim it is better to spend money on areas that can be monitored and their success measured, such as on education and health programs. Help Africa help itself, as the cliche has it. Some Africans agree. «What we need from the West is not charity and tutelage but partnership and support,» Oyewole said. Others say the West has little to offer. «We keep saying the Western world wants Africa to develop,» Sunday Oluwadare Agbi, the Nigerian ambassador to Greece said. «I don’t think it’s true.»

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