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Up the Ante for Africa

June 13, 2005

After some initial resistance, the Bush administration signed on late last week to a British proposal for debt forgiveness for some of the world's poorest nations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. and the other leading industrial nations that make up the Group of 8 agreed to wipe out $40 billion in debt (at a cost to creditors of some $16 billion) for 18 poverty-stricken countries. It's a start -- but only that -- toward alleviating some of humanity's most acute hardship.

Future generations of Americans may well look back at Africa's current plight at a time of such global affluence and ask what we did about it, in a variant of the old question, "What did you do during the war, Daddy?" If he does nothing more than he has already, President Bush will be able to answer that he did more than his predecessors, but that alone is not enough.

U.S. foreign aid in general has been pathetically small for decades. When Bush took office, it amounted to just a tenth of a percent of national income. So when Bush touts his record -- a tripling of aid to Africa, a $15-billion commitment to fight HIV/AIDS, etc. -- it has to be put in perspective: It's better than nothing, but it's still kind of measly.

The centerpiece of the "Marshall Plan" for Africa put forth by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is a doubling of aid to Africa, to about $50 billion a year by 2010. The U.S. currently gives about $3 billion a year to the continent. Three years ago, Washington committed to raise its foreign aid budget to 0.7% of national income by 2015; currently it gives 0.16%. Blair's aid plan will be discussed when G-8 leaders meet starting July 6 in Scotland, but Bush has already signaled his lack of support. U.S. allies and Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon alum and new World Bank president, should continue to press the administration to reconsider its opposition. After all, Bush once opposed debt relief too.

The new package will cancel debts owed to the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Members of the G-8, the club of wealthy nations that signed on to the deal, will replenish the reserves of those lending organizations. That is expected to cost the United States an additional $1.3 billion to $1.75 billion over the next 10 years.

The 18 beneficiaries probably were never going to be able to pay off their loans anyway. Their attempts to do so only put a punishing burden on their already poverty-stricken citizens; in order to pay the debts, many countries began charging fees at public schools and clinics, thus cutting off education and healthcare to a large part of the population. The deal will free up about $1.5 billion annually, with which these countries can build infrastructure and hopefully eliminate those fees. An additional 20 countries might qualify for debt relief over the next two years.

Nobody is calling for a blank check. The Bush administration and others are rightly trying to tie aid to economic reform and good governance, but some of the unmet needs in sub-Saharan Africa -- vaccines, mosquito nets, schoolhouses -- are so basic that they transcend politics. It also doesn't help these nations that the U.S. and other rich countries don't engage in fair trade for farm goods, and the G-8 needs to recommit itself to ending those subsidies that victimize the developing world.

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