One year on, Commission for Africa is no more

Created by Tony Blair ahead of the Gleneagles Summit a year ago, “to make a real difference to Africa”, this high-powered body of international dignitaries was presented to the world as the centrepiece of a global drive against African poverty.

But recently when Blair announced plans to chase up the Group of Eight (G8) countries on the pledges they made last year the job went not to the Commission for Africa but to a new United Nations panel to be led by the Secretary-General Kofi Annan and including Bob Geldof and Nigeria’s President Obasanjo. The panel will be funded by Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.

The Commission for Africa ceased to function after the Gleneagles summit in Scotland, and has not met for nearly a year. Its press office has closed. Yet the record of the past year shows that many governments have failed to live up to their promises, and that there would have been plenty of work for the Commission to do.

The three main pledges made at Gleneagles related to debt relief, aid and trade. Geldof, organiser of the Make Poverty History campaign that forced the G8 leaders to make Africa a priority, last week summed up the results so far as “the good, the OK and the ugly”, with performance on debt relief being good, on aid as “OK” and on trade as ugly.

The Gleneagles summit did produce some genuine help for Africa. By next month, the debts of the 18 poorest countries, most of them in Africa, totalling US$50bn, will have been cancelled according to plan.

The world’s poorest countries can now choose how to spend the money they were using to repay debts. Some are using it to tackle their own country’s poverty. In Zambia, the government has recruited 4,500 new teachers and made healthcare free. In Tanzania, it has bought food for areas hit by drought. In Ghana, the money saved has been spent on infrastructure such as road building.

The G8’s promise to double aid by US$50bn a year by 2010 – half to Africa – is impossible to assess at this stage. Aid did rise by a third in 2005, but most of that was to write off the debts of Iraq and Nigeria rather than to help the poorest.

The US-based DATA (Debt Aids Trade Africa) non-governmental organisation said last week that France was the only country on track to meet the target. The US, Britain and Italy were “off track”. Canada and Germany’s aid had fallen and Japan’s figures were not made available.

But the biggest failure is on trade. Many analysts regard the removal of trade barriers by the advanced countries as the key to lifting Africa out of poverty. There is no sign of agreement on how to rectify the imbalance of trade between Africa and western nations. At a recent World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong, “staunch opposition” from the US and Japan scuppered G8 plans to open up their markets to all goods from the poorest countries, according to Actionaid.

“Not a banana has been delivered,” says Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African society. “Nothing has been achieved, and Europe and America keep the agricultural subsidies that do so much damage to Africa’s ability to earn its own living in the world.”

There was another side of the Gleneagles bargain. African leaders promised to promote democracy and economic growth, while showing “zero tolerance” of corruption.

Some, including Rwanda, Mozambique and Liberia are trying to deliver health and education to their people. ‘ scotsman.com

July 2006
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