G-8 Summit Sidelines Africa

The G-8 summit of the world's most powerful nations, held this week near Calgary, Alberta, was referred to as the "last, best chance" to reverse the human crisis in Africa.

The leaders of four African countries and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the second day of the summit to press G-8 leaders to support the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). The home-grown Marshall Plan calls for aid and greater market access from the G-8 in exchange for a "peer review" system in which the African countries themselves would decide who is entitled to G-8 money -- based on how well a nation protects foreign investors and human rights.

As both summit delegates and activists point out, African nations face problems of epidemic proportions. One-half of the continent's population of 680 million people live on an income of less than $1 per day. More than 12 million have died in wars in the past decade. More than 25 million have AIDS, and 2.4 million died of the disease last year. One hundred and forty children out of every 1,000 don't live to see their fifth birthday.

But Africans hoping for a firm international commitment from the G-8 received a slap in the face -- delivered principally by George W. Bush. Bush essentially steered the agenda at the summit away from Africa, focusing instead on drumming up support for his new Mideast peace plan and the war on terrorism. At the start of summit, Bush congratulated himself for already earmarking $500 million for AIDS programs and $200 million for third-world education. (The two-day G-8 summit itself cost $200 million, much of it spent on policing the modest anti-globalization protests that took place in downtown Calgary.) Africa was clearly not a priority for the U.S. at the summit.

In the end, African nations got little of what they had hoped for.

Although the G-8 leaders endorsed NEPAD, they refused to spend the $64 billion the plan requires. They instead announced their own "Action Plan for Africa" totalling about $6 billion. In comparison, at Bush's insistence, they earmarked $20 billion for a program to prevent Russian nuclear weapons from falling into terrorist hands. At the final press conference, the African delegates tried to put a positive spin on the G-8 meetings, calling them a "starting point". "We are satisfied with this commitment. Of course, there is nothing that is human that is perfect," said Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.

The NGOs and civil society groups who came to monitor the summit were more vocal in their disappointment, accusing the G-8 nations of double-standards. Amnesty International pointed out that although the G-8 announced that it would only provide future aid to countries protecting human rights, G-8 nations sell more than $25 billion in arms to developing countries every year (the U.S. is the largest exporter at $14 billion annually).

An economic-justice group based in Washington, D.C., called 50 Years is Enough noted that the G-8 insist (through the World Bank) that African countries eliminate all their agricultural subsidies -- even though the G-8 themselves have given $500 billion in subsidies to their own farmers this year alone. Activists say such policies have had a dramatic impact on countries which rely on a few agricultural crops. Twenty years ago, for example, Ghana subsidized its farmers and exported rice; now it imports $150 million of the grain every year, mainly from the United States.  To many of these critics, NEPAD would be no saving grace, even if it were fully funded.

NEPAD -- "knee pad", as skeptics pronounce it -- was drafted by the leaders of only five African countries, without any public consultation. The G-8 endorsed NEPAD mainly because it speaks the language they want to hear, making Africa more responsible for its own fate, expanding the free-trade "structural adjustment" programs of the World Bank, and creating new opportunities for "investment".

In practice, however, these policies often entail little more than the sale of public utilities. The World Bank, for example, now requires African countries to privatize their water systems in order to qualify for loans, even though water is still a public utility in G-8 countries. "It's a way to entice African governments to be the agents of their own destruction," said Njoki Njoroge Njehu, a spokeswoman for 50 Years is Enough. "For the purposes of multinational corporations, for new frontiers to make profits, NEPAD is a gift."

More importantly, say activists, both NEPAD and the G-8 Action Plan refuse to deal with pressing problems facing Africa -- problems that may prevent any kind of development either now or in the future. Although the G-8 leaders announced $1 billion in new debt relief this week, African nations still send more money to G-8 bankers to service their debts every year than they receive in aid. The debt drains what little funds they have for health care and education.

Worse still, almost no new money was set aside to fight AIDS.

In an impassioned speech at a counter-summit held here, Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, insisted that NEPAD's noble aim of cutting African poverty in half by 2015 will be impossible "when family income is gutted as wage earners die, as plots of land are left untended, as every penny goes to the care of the sick and the dying."

Pharmaceutical companies have agreed to slash the price of anti-retroviral drugs, but the UN's Global AIDS and Health, Fund which is supposed to distribute them, is nearly bankrupt. Even the $6 billion in aid vaguely promised at this week's summit will be distributed over several years.

"Another 10 million people will have died before we reach those levels of assistance," he said.

Ross Crockford is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Victoria, Canada.

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