Investing in Africa

June 21, 2005

THIS YEAR has frequently been touted as pivotal for Africa. Stars have aligned to focus global attention on that rich but troubled continent, prompting calls for renewed attempts to make African economies self-sustaining and for redoubled efforts to combat poverty and disease.

Rock musicians, evangelists, European leaders and world trade ministers have all signed on to a grand lobbying effort intended to free Africans from debt, boost humanitarian relief and development aid, and drop protectionist barriers to African products.

Results so far have not measured up -- in part because the United States doesn't seem inclined to play as large a role as it should.

There's still time, though, for President Bush and Congress to muster the magnitude of investment required to make a real difference. They should do so not just as a matter of charity but because it is in America's interest for Africa to thrive.

In many ways, Africa is still struggling to overcome the lingering effects of colonialism -- plundered resources, artificial boundaries, ethnic conflicts and corrupt dictatorships -- which feed the cycle of famine, poverty, disease and strife.

Emergency food aid, which represents one-third of the $3 billion this country spends on Africa each year, addresses a critical short-term need on a continent where millions die of hunger. Another third of U.S. aid goes to combating HIV/AIDS -- a key Bush initiative that the White House nevertheless has proposed to cut by 30 percent.

What Africa also requires is investment in specific projects, programs and services that would, in effect, keep on giving: from mosquito nets to water treatment plants, soil supplements to Internet services, highways to eliminating fees for primary education.

But instead, the remaining third of America's annual aid to Africa goes mostly to consultant salaries, which typically are paid to Americans.

Help from Mr. Bush's 2002 Millennium Challenge program, which was supposed to dispense $10 billion over three years to nations that make political reforms, has been so stymied by red tape that its director quit last week amid a blizzard of complaints.

Against this dismaying record, President Bush has trumpeted his agreement with Group of Eight counterparts to cancel the debt of 18 African nations -- a plan intended to free up $1.5 billion a year to be spent locally rather than channeled to bankers. But Mr. Bush has been cool to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's drive to double international development aid for Africa.

Of course, there are demands aplenty on a federal budget far out of balance. But for a small fraction of what this government is spending on Iraq, it could help free Africa from the relentless despair that spawns terrorism.

What's more, practical help strategically applied encourages the sort of private investment that yields substantial returns for all involved. Hundreds of African and American business leaders are meeting in Baltimore this week to explore these win-win opportunities.

If compassion and creativity are combined with benign self-interest, this could be a big year for Africa after all.

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