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Again, Africa Is Spurned

June 12, 2004

Africa's crushing poverty, and the warfare that results from it, has received lip service at all the recent summits of the Group of 8 leading industrial nations. The presence of leaders of six African nations at this week's gathering in Georgia raised high hopes that this time something would be done about relieving the continent's debt problems. But Africa was skunked again.

The presidents and prime ministers of wealthy nations listened to U.S. attempts to persuade them to write off debts to the country that was the centerpiece of the summit: Iraq. But they rejected the plea, with French President Jacques Chirac saying it would be unfair to other countries struggling to pay the interest on their loans -- let alone the principal -- if a stroke of the pen did away with more than half of Iraq's estimated $120-billion debt.

France, Russia, Germany and China are on the hook for loans to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. To their credit, they did agree months ago to forgive some of the debt after former Secretary of State James A. Baker III visited their capitals to lobby them. In return, companies headquartered in these countries may wind up with contracts for business in the new Iraq.

But the main lenders to African countries, which are believed to have $300 billion in debts among them, are not other countries but the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The United States is the biggest shareholder in both institutions and could push more vigorously for debt relief.

There's no guarantee that France and other countries would be more willing to forgive Iraq's debt if the U.S. were more energetic in pushing the IMF and World Bank to forgive loans to Africa, but it would undercut charges of hypocrisy and vastly unequal treatment of impoverished nations.

The World Bank and IMF have written off nearly $40 billion in African nations' debt in the last eight years. They argue that total debt forgiveness would cripple their ability to lend money to poor nations in the future with any hope of getting the funds back.

They should agree to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's suggestion of a moratorium on interest payments until an independent group defines which loans are legitimate and which lined the pockets of looters like the late Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo. Congo, which Friday experienced its second coup attempt this year, carries debts of $16 billion.

Western nations that have cut back their aid to African countries should push for greater debt write-offs. HIV and AIDS have taken a great toll on the continent and require increasing expenditures of scarce funds; diverting money from schools and hospitals to pay interest on loans condemns Africa to more years of poverty and despair.

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