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Africans Fear Being Overlooked by G-8

Summit: After being promised much attention, leaders see their cause being sidelined by the Mideast and terrorism.


CALGARY, Canada — Africa has been promised a rare moment in the international spotlight when leaders of the world's wealthiest nations gather in the Canadian Rockies today and Thursday. But many Africans fear that their concerns--and their desperate need for economic help--may be overshadowed by the West's preoccupation with the Middle East conflict and the threat of terrorism elsewhere in the world.

Officially, the centerpiece of the summit agenda is still an undefined "action plan" for Africa. On Thursday, for the first time, a delegation of African presidents will meet face to face with their counterparts from the "Group of 8"--the seven leading industrial democracies and Russia--and plead the case for trade breaks and massive financial aid for their impoverished continent.

"This is not charity," said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the summit's host and the chief sponsor of the Africa initiative. "This is an investment."

But there are many rival claimants for such investment. Since Sept. 11, the United States and the European Union have been far more worried by Islamic fundamentalism than by African poverty. Wealthy nations are already falling short of their $5-billion aid goal for rebuilding Afghanistan. And the Bush administration recently said it will seek contributions from Europe and Japan for a proposed $20-billion subsidy for Russian nuclear disarmament.

Leaders today are expected to discuss counter-terrorism, the global economy and other issues.

And now, some Africans worry, the G-8 meeting could be consumed with debate over President Bush's proposal for elections and a "provisional" state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, criticizing the Bush plan as premature Tuesday, said it should be discussed by the entire "quartet" of Middle East intermediaries: the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. All are represented at the leadership level here. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, another key Middle East player, will also attend the Canadian summit as part of the African delegation.

"They cannot even stick to their own agenda," said Njoki Njehu, a Kenyan activist speaking at an anti-G-8 forum here. "Chretien doesn't want the Africa plan to be upstaged, but maybe the upstaging has already happened."

On the eve of the summit, Chretien promised publicly that Africa would not be eclipsed by the Middle East here--"because I'm the chair." British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac are also publicly committed to the Africa initiative, and both pledged to increase aid to the continent by 25% or more over the coming year.

But the African leaders--Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal and Mubarak--have already been told that the G-8 nations will not jointly commit themselves to the comprehensive aid package that the Africans once hoped to obtain in Canada. Trade concessions for Africa, meanwhile, have been almost forgotten amid wrangling within the industrialized world about steel tariffs and agricultural subsidies.

"The momentum has abated," said Kwesi Botchwey, a Ghanaian economist who headed a recent U.N. study of African development problems.

Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, whom Africans once saw as their champion in elite world councils, made clear before the meeting that Washington wanted the summit's development agenda broadened beyond the continent. "I am pleased that the prime minister is focusing on those needs," he told Canadian interviewers this month, "but we will also make the case that there are other nations in the world that have a need for the kinds of funds we are about to make available."

In statements issued after the two preparatory meetings for the Alberta summit--finance ministers met this month in Nova Scotia, while foreign ministers gathered in British Columbia--there was no specific mention of Africa at all, an omission that alarmed advocates of aid programs there. Some critics attributed the seeming oversight to the absence of former Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin, widely considered the driving intellectual force behind Canada's African aid agenda, who was unexpectedly dismissed in a domestic political dispute with Chretien this month.

At the 2001 summit in Genoa, Italy, when globalization and its critics were preoccupying world leaders, the G-8 had vowed to make sub-Saharan Africa the focus of its next annual meeting. This was one area of the planet where democracy and free-market forces had indisputably failed to spur development. The goal set for sub-Saharan Africa by governments and aid agencies for the 1990s was 7% economic growth; instead, the region registered just 3% growth over the past 10 years, barely enough to keep pace with population expansion.

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