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Thursday, 18 August 2005

IS THERE HOPE FOR AFRICA?

By Jim Jordal

"For every dollar that goes into sub-Sahara Africa as aid, $1.50 goes out for international debt payments."

From The Debt Threat, by Noreena Hertz, reported in News Bites, Sojourners Magazine, June, 2005.

"Rwanda had its $1.4 billion debt canceled in April [2005] by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank under the 'heavily indebted poor country" initiative. Up to 55 percent of Rwanda's 8.2 million people live on less than $1 a day."

From News Bites, Sojourners Magazine, July, 2005.

"The greatest tragedy of our time is that one-sixth of humanity is not even on the development ladder. A large number of the extreme poor are caught in a poverty trap, unable on their own to escape from extreme material deprivation. They are trapped by disease, physical isolation, climate stress, environmental degradation, and by extreme poverty itself. Even though life-saving solutions exist to increase their chances for survival--whether in the form of new farming techniques, or essential medicines, or bed nets that can limit the transmission of malaria--these families and their governments lack the financial means to make these crucial investments. The world's poor know about the development ladder: they are tantalized by images of affluence from halfway around the world. But they are not able to get a first foothold on the ladder, and so cannot even begin the climb out of poverty."

From The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey Sachs, 2005

With the recently concluded summit conference of the G-8 nations in Scotland, media attention again reveals desperate poverty and suffering in sub-Saharan Africa. Literally hundreds of relief organizations work tirelessly to alleviate disease and starvation in this part of the world, but with questionable success, as the disaster continues seemingly unabated. Reports differ due to the immensity of the problem, but most agree that perhaps 25,000 Africans die daily from disease, starvation, and the very act of being desperately poor.

For the first time in human history, enough wealth exists worldwide to solve the problem. In the year 2000, the United Nations and all 191 member nations, deeply concerned with the problem of desperate poverty (defined as personal income of less than a dollar per day, and affecting a billion people) proposed what we now know as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the aim of which, among other things, is to halve worldwide desperate poverty by the year 2015. Unfortunately, many of the poorest nations, most of them African, have utterly failed to meet even minimum MDGs, and remain mired in debt, poverty, sickness, oppression, and death.

Is there hope for Africa? Can anything be done to end desperate, debilitating poverty in sub-Saharan Africa? Can problems that have existed for hundreds of years, defying all attempts at remediation, now be solved in the next several decades?

According to increasing numbers of economists, the answer is "Yes, but only if major changes occur in both Western and African perceptions and behaviors." So, what needs to change?

One needed change is in the perception of Westerners concerning the problems of Africa. It's difficult to marshal aid for Africa when so many people believe Africa to be a hopeless cause. They perceive the rampant corruption and inefficiency presided over by brutal, despotic governments, and determine that whatever aid is offered will be lost in the maze of conflicting interests, tribal feuds, massive ignorance, run-away population growth, and endemic disease.

There is some truth in this perception, since it arises from certain well-documented cases involving desperately poor countries lacking even basic infrastructure and institutions of democracy; and pillaged by tyrannical, corrupt, military dictators. Who has not heard of foreign loans disappearing into secret Swiss bank accounts? Or food aid being seized by dictators to feed their hungry troops?

But there is another side to the story. Thievery and waste are only a small part of the trouble. Much worse is the fact that many poor nations are hundreds of miles from any seaport, lack any semblance of road and rail networks, and have few if any navigable rivers. High transportation costs thus necessitate that whatever food or goods they produce must be used locally. So there is no way other than local trade and commerce to gain significant family income.

In these poor nations perhaps half the people exist at the subsistence level, eating or using whatever they produce, never able to save or plan for the future. They are thus victims of what Jeffrey Sachs describes as "The Poverty Trap," meaning that they are "trapped by disease, physical isolation, climate stress, environmental degradation, and by extreme poverty itself." So they endure, generation after generation, at the same pitiful subsistence level, never able to reach the lowest rung of the ladder to success.

Is there any hope? Yes, there is, but only if the West can revamp its thinking concerning debilitating poverty, and if the poor nations of Africa can find it within themselves to use whatever debt relief and aid they get for the benefit of their poor people, and not to allow tyrants and political functionaries to siphon aid into foreign bank accounts. More next week.

Last Updated ( Friday, 18 November 2005 )