Africa in brief

From Africa Renewal: 

Pan-African Parliament is a step closer

In November, Senegal became the 24th member of the African Union (AU) to ratify the protocol establishing the continent's first Pan-African Parliament. By reaching that threshold, the protocol came into legal force. That in turn paves the way for the inaugural session of the body, scheduled for early 2004 at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia .

So far no country has yet won the right to host the parliament, but Egypt, Libya and South Africa have all expressed an interest. The parliament will only have consultative and advisory powers during its first five years of operation and serve as a venue for debates on issues affecting the continent. “We are trying to avoid the problems faced by similar parliaments by having this five-year experimental period,” said AU spokesman Desmond Orjiako.

After that, it is envisioned that the body would evolve into the law-making arm of the AU, modeled on the European Union parliament, with full legislative powers. Every AU member country will provide five members to the parliament, one of whom must be a woman.

“Each member state will elect its representatives,” said Mr. Orjiako. Immediately after Senegal ratified the protocol, South Africa became the first country to select its five participants, three of whom are women.

AU Chairman Alpha Oumar Konaré said the parliament will promote popular participation and democratic governance. It is one of 10 key AU organs, including a Central Bank, Court of Justice and Peace and Security Council. The AU succeeded the Organization of African Unity and is urging its members to expedite the creation of the new organs.

 

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WTO members urge resumption of talks

Unexpectedly, the European Union has joined the Group of 21, a coalition of developing countries with which it had previously clashed, to call for a quick resumption of negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The G21, which includes Brazil, China, India and South Africa, disagreed with the EU at a failed WTO ministerial meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in September over curbs in farm subsidies, among other issues.

Following the collapse, talks were set to resume on 15 December. A few days before that deadline, the EU attended a G21 meeting in Brazil to jointly declare that there is “general agreement that we need to intensify negotiations early next year [2004],” in effect dropping the 15 December deadline. The aim is still to finalize the current round of trade talks by 2005. “The impression I had is that we [the EU and G21] not only want to pursue negotiations, but also to show some flexibility,” said EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy. “If we start where we were [after Cancún], we will not succeed.”

Divisions remain on the fundamental issues, however. “After two months of consultations,” said Mauritius's WTO Ambassador Jaynarin Meetoo, “we have not been able to reach any agreement on the framework of agriculture or the framework of non-agriculture market access,” among other deadlocked issues.

 

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Health gap widens between rich and poor

Women in the poorest countries are more than 250 times more likely to die in childbirth than women in wealthy countries, while just 1 in 20 people in need of life-saving HIV/AIDS drugs in developing countries can access them. These statistics reflect a growing health gap between the wealthy North and the impoverished South, asserts the World Health Organization (WHO) in its 2003 World Health Report, and underscore the need for a global commitment to primary health care for all.

Health conditions in Africa are particularly critical, the report says. It notes that HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death and mortality rates for children under five are higher than they were a decade ago.

 

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Information summit defers contentious issues

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade proposed a “Digital Solidarity Fund.”
photo: United Nations



Leaders from 176 countries who met for the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December decided to establish a task force to explore setting up a Digital Solidarity Fund to finance the development of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in poor countries. The task force, to be appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan early this year, will review existing mechanisms for financing the development of such technologies and study the feasibility of setting up a fund. Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has been lobbying for such a fund to bridge the “digital divide” between industrial and developing countries. However, industrial nations oppose the idea of establishing yet another global funding mechanism.

The study group will report to the next WSIS summit, to be held in Tunisia in 2005. “We have been given one year to come up with the review, and it is up to us to convince those who don't see the necessity of building the fund, mainly the developed countries, so that we can reach consensus in Tunis in 2005,” said Mr. Adama Samassekou, president of the WSIS Preparatory Committee.

“Telephones will not feed the poor, and computers will not replace textbooks,” International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Yoshio Utsumi told delegates to the 10-12 December meeting in Geneva. “But ICTs can be used effectively as part of the toolbox for addressing global problems.”

Management of the Internet was another contentious issue in Geneva. Currently, key decisions on domain names and addresses are made by a private US agency. Concerned about US domination of the medium, a group of developing countries, including South Africa, is lobbying for a neutral body, such as the UN, to be given control over Internet “governance.” The WSIS meeting agreed to set up another panel to study the issue and propose a solution to the 2005 summit.

Delegates also debated whether governments should support open-source software like Linux over commercial ones like Microsoft's Windows. Mr. Samuel Guimarães, executive secretary in Brazil's foreign ministry, told the meeting that open-source (free-to-share) software is crucial for poorer countries, since it would permit them to freely develop their own technology, instead of purchasing it.

Two African projects, Time to Market and the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) won excellence awards presented to 40 finalists at the summit. Time to Market uses mobile telephones to provide market information on agriculture and fisheries in Senegal while WOUGNET is an online information resource on women's issues.