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Africa's Neocon Ally

June 23, 2005

People often bring home unusual souvenirs after a trip to Africa: handicrafts, safari photos, exotic diseases. World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz seems to have picked up a new appreciation for the opportunity facing rich nations to undertake the global poverty-fighting equivalent of regime change, to use an analogy he might appreciate.

"I would like to see increased levels of U.S. assistance, by whatever means we get there, in particular for Africa," he said Sunday after touring Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Rwanda and South Africa. Wolfowitz said he is readying aid plans for the July 6 summit of the Group of 8 industrialized nations in Gleneagles, Scotland, where British Prime Minister Tony Blair will push hard for a doubling of assistance to Africa. Wolfowitz went so far as to describe Blair's initiative, which has been heavily resisted by President Bush, as "almost a gift from heaven."

Is this the same neoconservative hawk who, while U.S. deputy Defense secretary, served as an architect of the Iraq war?

Actually, Wolfowitz's stance on foreign aid might not be such a big departure. One of the defining characteristics of the neoconservative philosophy is an optimistic view that the United States can use its lone-superpower status to remake the world in its own image.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 28, 2005 Home Edition California Part B Page 12 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Africa aid -- An editorial Thursday on World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz and aid to Africa said the U.N. Population Fund provides access to safe abortions. The fund provides no support for abortion services.

The history of aid to Africa has been rocky; decades of investment have spurred improvements in some areas, but poverty on the continent as a whole has risen despite the inflows. Corruption on the part of African governments is often blamed, and rightly so. Dictators have used foreign aid funds to enrich themselves and their supporters while their people starved. But the failures of international efforts go deeper than that.

Those who use corruption to justify the United States' stingy approach to foreign aid ignore the haphazard and wrongheaded ways it has been applied. It is supplied by a wide variety of donors, each with its own objectives, which may not have any relationship to what recipient countries need. Aid is often given to fill a donor's need -- think Cold War-era buying of influence -- or tied to difficult conditions of dubious value, and it tends to be unpredictable. Often donor priorities are out of whack, such as the Bush administration's denial of funding to groups that provide access to safe abortion, such as the U.N. Population Fund. Placing ideology over medicine can have deadly consequences; nearly 50,000 African women are thought to die each year as a result of unsafe abortions.

Blair's plan, spelled out in a report by his Commission for Africa, is fuzzy on the details of how the additional $25 billion he's calling for would be spent. But it has concrete proposals for avoiding past missteps. It recommends giving untied aid funds directly to states that have a development strategy and transparent budgets. For more problematic governments, it advocates giving support to a given sector, or specific projects. And for the worst states it suggests using foreign organizations to provide assistance, rather than giving any money to the government.

Wolfowitz is not the only U.S. conservative to get religion on African aid in recent years; other notable advocates include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). Bush seems to be getting the message. Earlier this month he signed on to an agreement to cancel $40 billion in debt to 18 of the world's poorest nations. Last week, the leaders of five African countries complained about the slow pace of grants from the president's Millennium Challenge Account, which has been badly underfunded and has spent a measly $400,000 so far. Bush promised to do better, and two days later the head of the fund abruptly resigned.

Wolfowitz may turn out to be an effective champion for African development because he has the ear of the president. He should shout into it about the things he learned in Burkina Faso. Blair's plan might be the best chance to date to justify Wolfowitz's optimism about U.S. power to improve the human condition.

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