Combating Africa’s ‘silent tsunamis’

Donor momentum builds for greater aid to the continent
From Africa Renewal: 
page 3

After a decade of decline in aid flows to Africa, the tide seems to be turning. According to UN estimates, $23.1 bn in official development assistance (ODA) went to the continent in 2003, a striking 46 per cent more than just three years earlier (see graph). All indications point to even higher levels in 2004 and 2005.

Yet this is no reason for complacency, French President Jacques Chirac told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January. Africa and other developing regions, he said, are suffering chronic “silent tsunamis” that claim untold numbers of lives through famine, infectious diseases and violence.

If Africa is to reduce its high poverty rates, it needs substantially more assistance -- in fact, a doubling of aid over the next decade. With the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), Mr. Chirac told the gathering of world political and corporate leaders, “Africa has begun to change. . . . The financial community must show massive commitment in return.”

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, speaking on behalf of several African presidents who took part in the Davos forum, noted that African leaders have shown through their own efforts that “we want to help ourselves.” But until the continent is able to revive its economies and earn more from its exports, there will not be enough financing to deal with its lack of food, jobs, schools and health care. “We are not getting the critical mass of funds to make development possible.”

Diversion or opportunity?

For some, the tsunami that devastated Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries bordering the Indian Ocean in late December seemed like another occasion for aid to be “diverted” from Africa, as countries around the world rushed to provide relief to the disaster’s many victims.

A house destroyed by the tsunami in Somalia A house destroyed by the tsunami in Somalia: Very little relief has gone to Africa’s tsunami victims.
Photograph: WFP / Francesco Broli

The daily Le Pays of Burkina Faso wondered whether Asia’s geostrategic importance to the West accounted for the large contributions pledged to Asian tsunami victims -- while Somalia, Kenya and other African coastal countries that were also hit were “totally ignored.”

Providing evidence for this view, the UN’s World Food Programme reported that donations to its operations in Africa dropped by 21 per cent in January 2005, compared with the same month the year before. Mr. Jan Egeland, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator, described Africa’s predicament to the Security Council as “a forgotten and neglected quadruple tsunami” of disease, conflict, poor governance and chronic food shortages. “Africa should have the same worth as the tsunami-affected region,” he said, but actual humanitarian assistance is falling far short of the needs in countries such as Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chad and Zimbabwe.

Such warnings prompted some relief officials to promise that they will try to keep a spotlight on Africa. “Not one euro destined for Africa will be diverted to South Asia,” pledged Mr. Louis Michel, the European Union’s commissioner for development and humanitarian action.

Whatever the immediate impact on limited relief budgets, the extremely generous and rapid response to the tsunami by governments and citizens in the richest countries demonstrated the longer-term possibilities for renewed aid flows.

Aid to Africa

“The rich countries are capable, when they want to, of mounting an extraordinary response to the needs of the poor, in no time at all,” commented Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, who heads the UN Millennium Project. “The tsunami has changed our mode of calculation.”

For proponents of African development, the challenge now appears to be tapping into this potential for international solidarity -- and to do so in a sustained fashion that looks beyond short-term emergencies towards the continent’s basic development needs.

Impetus in Davos

The Davos gathering confirmed that some of the world’s major donors are thinking more seriously about ways to boost their aid disbursements to Africa. Moreover, this emphasis on renewed aid comes at the same time that creditor nations and institutions are acknowledging that the world’s poorest countries need more sweeping debt relief (see article "New urgency for cancelling Africa's debt").

At the opening of the World Economic Forum, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair reaffirmed that Africa and climate change will be the two issues on which his government will focus this year during its presidency of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries. The UK has supported calls for aid to Africa to be doubled.

But aid and debt relief alone are not sufficient, Mr. Blair acknowledged. Africa also must be able to earn more from its own exports. Towards that end, he said, “we must open our markets, cut our subsidies, including on controversial items such as cotton and sugar,” and help African countries build their capacity to manage trade reforms.

In 2004 Mr. Blair appointed a Commission for Africa, half of whose members are African. Released on 11 March, its report called for both increased aid flows and measures to strengthen the capacity of African democracies and institutions.

Targeting the MDGs

Prime Minister Blair and other Davos participants set their proposals within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by 2015. “A new global vision of development is required,” based on the idea of partnership exemplified by the MDGs and NEPAD, said President Chirac.

Just a little more than a week before the Davos gathering, the UN Millennium Project issued an extensive report, Investing in Development, that urged a doubling of aid to the poorest countries. It also detailed practical steps for advancing some of the specific MDGs in Africa, such as providing inexpensive insecticide-treated bed nets to drastically reduce child mortality from malaria.

Davos forum At Davos (from left): former US President Bill Clinton, Microsoft head Bill Gates, South African President Thabo Mbeki, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish rock star Bono, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Photograph: World Economic Forum / Swiss-Image.ch / Remy Steinegger

Such ideas were welcomed not only by the political leaders at Davos, but also by many corporate executives. Mr. Bill Gates, head of the US computer software giant Microsoft, noted that millions of children in Africa are dying of treatable diseases. “The fact that we don’t apply the resources to the known cures or to finding better cures is really . . . the most scandalous issue of our time.” His own foundation has already pledged $750 mn for child immunization programmes in developing countries.

G-8 proposals

Individual contributions, even from some of the world’s richest people, can only go a small way towards meeting Africa’s enormous financing needs. To discuss methods of bridging the gap, the finance ministers of the seven largest Western powers met in London a week later. The proposals they examined included:

• The establishment of an International Financing Facility, put forward by UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown as one means of raising funds for a new “Marshall Plan” for poor countries. Under the scheme, donor governments would raise money in international financial markets by floating bonds backed by promises of future aid.

• A similar, but less ambitious, “experimental” facility, also suggested by the UK, devoted to developing vaccines against HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

• A variety of new taxes, proposed by France, to raise revenues for development assistance. Suggestions included a modest tax on international financial transactions, a tax on aviation fuel (which is currently untaxed) and a levy of about $1 on each air ticket sold. The latter step, President Chirac noted, would by itself raise an additional $3 bn annually.

With some countries, including the US and Japan, expressing reservations about some of these proposals, the finance ministers did not reach agreement. They did decide, however, to continue the discussions at the next G-8 summit, set for July in the UK.

Not just more, but better

Commenting on the proposals for doubling aid to Africa, Mr. Paolo de Renzio, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute of the UK’s University of Sussex, points out that accompanying steps will also be needed to ensure that the aid is effective. In part, this should entail helping African countries build up their institutional capacity to manage aid. Donors themselves must also coordinate their own interventions and practices much better, he says.

In February, UN Economic Commission for Africa Executive Director K.Y. Amoako said that the Commission for Africa (of which he is a member) is calling for increasing not only the quantity of aid to Africa, but also “the quality and the whole aid relationship.” Between aid recipients and donors, he said, there must be “mutual accountability.”

Some representatives of non-governmental organizations add that donor countries should stop dictating policies to Africa. “The practice of attaching a raft of economic policy conditions to aid and debt relief, including privatization, trade liberalization and government spending cuts, must end,” says Ms. Romilly Greenhill, a policy officer at the UK-based ActionAid.