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Aid to Africa Can't Wait

June 06, 2002

Now that U2's Bono and the Treasury Department's Paul O'Neill are out of Africa, critics are dismissing their nine-day tour as a GOP ploy to attract MTV votes.

Not so. As O'Neill credibly asserted Wednesday, the two agreed far more often than not on such issues as keeping foreign aid out of the hands of corrupt officials. Similarly in Congress, Democrats and Republicans are closer than they have been in many years to retooling foreign aid to help Africa rein in the spread of AIDS (HIV infects 9,000 people on the continent every day) and clean up contaminated water. (More than 250 million Africans, nearly the population of the United States, lack access to clean water.)

Today, the Senate begins considering a short-term "emergency" bill that would funnel about half a billion dollars in global aid to help developing nations curb HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. These intertwined infectious diseases are responsible for almost one-half of deaths in developing countries.

Democratic senators want the United Nations to distribute most of the money. Republicans, led by Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, want President Bush to more directly distribute the money to programs he deems effective. Congress should take a middle tack: earmark a substantial portion of the aid for Africa and prevent Bush from diverting money into the war on terrorism, but also give the president freedom to use some of the money to leverage private charity and aid from other nations.

To those who complain that free-market incentives, such as encouraging exports, are a more permanent and less corrupting path to prosperity: Washington careened off that track with this year's farm bill. The measure lavishly subsidizes U.S.-grown food that competes with farm products from the poorest countries, making it impossible for African nations to export their way out of poverty.

Congress isn't about to reverse the farm bill, but Bush suggested a more modest solution in March. With the ubiquitous Bono by his side, the president announced that he would seek $5 billion a year in long-term assistance to help developing nations meet basic health-care goals such as subsidizing drugs that protect babies from HIV during childbirth. To this list should be added relief for famine in southern Africa, a crisis that has welled up only in the last few weeks, well after the Bono-O'Neill tour had been planned.

Last week, Mathabo Lekoatsa, wife of a Lesothan tribal leader, posed a reasonable question to the reporters accompanying O'Neill and Bono. "Talk, talk, talk," she said. "We hear a lot of words, but where is the food?" By earmarking aid for Africa now, Bush and Congress can in good conscience answer her, "It's coming."

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