The carefully chosen words and stark photographs with which reporter Davan Maharaj and photographer Francine Orr have chronicled the unbroken cycle of suffering and death in sub-Saharan Africa left many Times readers frustrated and angry. Yet hundreds of them were moved to offer assistance because the "Living on Pennies" series also captured the delicate flicker of hope still burning in extreme poverty's victims. A USC graduate student pledged $100 to a South African mother who can't afford to feed and educate her children. A Los Angeles businessman wants to build a schoolhouse. A cash-strapped stay-at-home mom is scouring her neighborhood for used shoes to send overseas.
Sadly, it will take more than charity to liberate 300 million people from the daily struggle against hunger and the shadow being cast across generations by the AIDS epidemic. Even multibillion-dollar aid packages are only life support in a region where per capita incomes are lower than they were 25 years ago.
What would make change would be swifter offers by rich countries of widespread debt relief to African nations that are spending $15 billion each year on debt payments. The idea is controversial because it is difficult to guarantee that inept or corrupt governments, particularly those torn by civil strife, would use what went to debt payments to instead benefit their citizens. But a growing number of African nations are well enough governed to ensure -- with monitoring -- that a financial boost would be used to build infrastructure, permanently improving living conditions.
The United States in the past has voiced support for African debt relief, but it's now more interested in lobbying other leading industrial nations to pare back oil-rich Iraq's massive foreign debt.
Fortunately, British Prime Minister Tony Blair continues his adamant support for the international effort that has prompted cancellation of about $40 billion in African debt. He is expected to focus on African debt relief next year when leading industrial nations gather for a Group of 8 meeting in England. If Blair fails, count on growing support for the radical proposal advanced by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan: If rich nations won't cancel the debts, Sachs argues, African nations should decline debt repayment and spend the money on fighting AIDS and other public works.
That would dry up lending to poor nations because guarantees of repayment would mean nothing. By speeding up the debt-relief process, lender nations would protect their financial interests without adding to Africa's extremities of human suffering.
The Africa series and a list of charitable groups that are working in sub-Saharan Africa are at www.latimes.com.