Africans listen with hope and some skepticism to British promises of help

In putting Africa at the top of his foreign policy agenda and trying to persuade leaders of other rich nations to follow suit British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeals to the world's conscience, but also to its self interest. Blair's has pledged to bring more British resources to bear in solving Africa's problems, and, with Britain holding the Group of Eight presidency this year, to get the other seven major industrialized countries acting as partners with Africans in transforming a continent mired in conflict, ravaged by AIDS and burdened by lack of opportunity. He argues a peaceful and prosperous Africa will be a place for investment, not the last port of illegal immigrants; a breeding ground for consumers, not terrorists. Those arguments and many of the proposals that have emanated from Britain in recent months aren't new. Again and again, commissions and committees inspired by compassion or pity or enlightened self interest have proposed cures for Africa. The suggestion, for instance, that each industrialized country spend at least 0.7 percent of its gross national product on development aid to poor countries echoes a call made at the Earth Summit in 1992, the recommendations of a panel of eminents convened by the late Willy Brandt in 1980 and of the United Nations a decade before that. Proposals to ease or eliminate debt interest payments or erase subsidies that make it impossible for Third World farmers to compete with their First World counterparts have equally long pedigrees. Or, put another way, have been politely ignored for just as long. This time may be different, said Irungu Houghton, a Kenyan who advises the British aid and development group Oxfam. He cites the February meeting in London of finance ministers from the Group of Seven. The United States, Britain, Canada, Italy, France Germany and Japan ended that meeting with an agreement to review the cases of the most heavily indebted nations with a view to easing their burden by "as much as 100 percent." It was not the clear call for erasing debt some may have wished, but Houghton found the language encouraging and "unusually pronounced." Suliman Baldo, head of African programs for the International Crisis Group, said the importance of Blair's exercise, which included the convening of a 17-member commission to draft proposals for the Group of Eight to consider, may be less in presenting new ideas than in mobilizing international commitment to old ones. He added, though, that he was unsure how much progress can be made without support from the United States, which so far has been cool to Blair's initiative. Baldo said Blair may be able to persuade Washington to support him, perhaps in gratitude for the support he lent on the Iraq war, but he was pessimistic. "Africa is not very high on the (American) agenda," said Baldo, whose think tank specializes in conflict resolution. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said he accepted a seat on Blair's commission the 17 commissioners include nine Africans despite his own initial questions about whether his British counterpart was just trying to gain political mileage and whether the initiative could offer much hope to Africa. "Over the past year, my skepticism has very significantly diminished," Zenawi told reporters in February after the last meeting of the commission, which is to present its report March 11. "This is not about politics," Zenawi said. "This is about being unable to accept defeat in the face of the very real possibility we have to change the destiny of the continent. If we all share the feeling that defeat is too ghastly to contemplate ... the all it needs if for you (in the West) and Africans is to give it a fighting chance." Zenawi spoke at Lancaster House, a former royal residence in London that is a gilded symbol of the ambiguous relationship between the West and Africa. The same ornate, neoclassical building where Blair's experts have met to hammer out proposals for reviving Africa hosted negotiations for a Kenyan constitution following its independence from Britain, and the signing of the deal that ended white minority rule in Zimbabwe. Africans may feel they've had too much Western meddling. But many are listening closely, if with a measure of skepticism, to Blair, sensing his initiative may be converging with important shifts in Africa and elsewhere to create a unique opportunity. In Africa, a slow thaw that started with the end of the Cold War may finally be ending the icy grip of autocracy. Despots who once had to offer little more than loyalty in exchange for support from Moscow or Washington are now being pressed to be accountable politically and economically to their citizens. More progressive African leaders are themselves pressuring the holdouts, using new platforms like the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development to keep up the pressure. In the post-Sept. 11 world, there's a growing sense distance and wealth can't shield the West from the anger and chaos of places like Sudan, Somalia or Congo. The concerns of African and other developing nations are getting a hearing in forums like the World Trade Organization. Western countries are pressing for resolutions in Sudan, the Congo and elsewhere with new commitment, if not yet with the kind of high-profile effort put into Middle East peacemaking. From the Lagos offices of her financial services firm, Bennedikter Molokwu listens to British pledges to rescue Africa from poverty and instability. Like a good businesswoman, she wants more specifics: concrete proposals and dates when she can expect to see them turned into action. It's not that Molokwu thinks the West owes Africa, though she does argue the industrialized world's wealth rests in part on raw materials wrested from her continent during the colonial period. More importantly, she says, Western entrepreneurs will find markets and opportunity in an Africa that is a player in the global economy. Associated Press

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