Africa pleads its case

June 9 1986

Africa pleads its case

June 9 1986

Africa pleads its case


Out of Africa came reports— and television footage—of unimaginable disaster. The pictures were haunting: twig-thin children, balefully staring mothers, hollow-eyed families huddled in refugee camps. Around the world, nations and individuals responded with an outpouring of charity, supported by unique fund-raising efforts from Band Aid, a British recording project at Christmas, 1984, to Sport Aid, which culminated in an international Race Against Time on May 25. The resulting shipments of grain and medicine have already saved millions of lives in such sub-Saharan countries as Ethiopia and the Sudan. Now the rains have returned and the worst of the crisis has passed. But the underlying problems that produced the African nightmare —from mounting debt to mismanaged economies to the burgeoning population-remain sadly unsolved. Last week, in an effort to address those problems, the United Nations General Assembly held a special five-day session, the first time the UN has ever focused on the economic needs of a single continent.

The UN meeting, which brought together representatives of the world body’s 159 member nations, was a response to a plea from the Organization of African Unity. The OAU asked the industrial nations to help finance a five-year plan for economic recovery by providing $45 billion (U.S.) in additional aid for 1986 to 1990, an increase of about 130 per cent over current levels. The Africans also sought $35 to $55 billion in new debt relief, while promising to raise $80 billion on their own. “A sick Africa means a sick world,” said the official OAU report, “and an Africa that remains stagnant or perpetually backward economically is a threat to the security of the world.” Many Western countries expressed

sympathy for the Africans’ plight and praised their new emphasis on developing free enterprise. But they refused to commit themselves to specific contributions—and strongly suggested that the amount of the OAU’s requests was far too high.

Still, the Africans did not leave entirely empty-handed. On the session’s

opening day, Monique Vézina, Canada’s minister for external relations, announced that Canada would suspend collection of African debt repayments of about $255 million for 15 years. Most of the debt, which totals more than $700 million in all, is owed to the Canadian International Development Agency.

Vézina declared that Canadians were “deeply touched” by the African crisis, but she said they believed that “emergency assistance for those who are dying of starvation is not enough.” Declared Vézina: “The people of Canada want us to move beyond the crisis to address its



speech won

immediate praise. James Grant, executive director of UNICEF—the UN International Children’s Emergency Fundcalled it the “most innovative” yet. He added, “If more donor countries come forward with the same kind of strong proposals and positive attitude toward African development, this special session will have been a tremendous suc-

cess.” The help is sorely needed: with the total African debt burden estimated at $240 billion, some states are spending as much as half of their foreign exchange earnings solely on interest payments, leaving little to finance an economic recovery.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign for Africa came from the Africans themselves. To begin with, the states avoided their usual ideological quarrels, barely touching such flashpoints as South African apartheid. Instead, they followed the advice of the OAU’s chairman, President Abdou Diouf of Senegal, who said, “Bear in mind the essentials—the survival of

a continent, the recovery of Africa.” African leaders also acknowledged that their own mismanagement of agriculture contributed to the continent’s drought, which has ravaged northern countries from Senegal, on the Atlantic, to Somalia, on the Red Sea. In the past African governments have often encouraged farmers to grow such exportable cash crops as coffee and sugar to earn needed foreign exchange—at the expense of agricultural subsis-

tence. And governments have appeased the urban middle class by keeping agricultural prices artificially low, which has driven many farmers off the land and into the cities.

In addition, beginning in the 1960s many newly independent black states, enamored of socialist policies, built huge —and hugely expensive —state farms that often proved more impressive as show projects than they were effective in producing food. As a result, Africa is growing less food per capita now than it did two decades ago. In fact in the 1970s, while Africa’s population, now 600 million, grew at an annual average rate of three

positive role of the private sector is tobe encouraged."

per cent, its yearly food production increased by at most 1.5 per cent. Senegal’s Diouf described agriculture as the “priority of priorities for Africa.” The OAU five-year plan would allocate about 45 per cent of its funds to the agricultural sector, including some in incentives for farmers. And, according to the OAU report, while the public sector will continue to play a key role —Ethiopia alone plans to double state farmland by 1994—“the

Many Western nations welcomed that pronouncement. British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe praised the “growing mood of realism.” U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz said that African countries must abandon “discredited orthodoxies of state direction” and become more self-reliant. U.S. officials, who are planning budget cuts in overall foreign aid, made it clear that they could not meet the request for more than the $1 billion they already provide to Africa.

The Soviet Union, which provides mostly military aid to Africa, advocat-

ed more centralized economic planning and collectivized farming. Yuli Vorontsov, first Soviet deputy minister of foreign affairs, attacked the “increasing neocolonialist exploitation” of Africa, adding that former colonial powers now want “to use loans and credits in order to make African states bargain away their political independence.”

Bob Geldof, the Irish rock singerturned-fundraiser who, through Band Aid, Live Aid and Sport Aid, has raised an estimated $140 million for African relief, said that he was not impressed by the superpower statements. On the third day of the UN session, Geldof described the Soviet response as “derisory, cynical and laughable” and the American promotion of free enterprise as “simplistic and nonsensical.” As for the UN delegates in general, the lead singer of the Boomtown Rats referred to them as “thugs or representatives of thugs,” adding, “All we are saying is, ‘Please listen to what the nonthugs are saying.’ ” That was an apparent reference to the 30 million runners in 76 countries, including Canada, who took part in the Race Against Time—what Geldof called “a petition of blistered feet.” The event’s central figure was Omar Khalifa of Sudan who, starting from a famine relief camp in his homeland on May 17, made 10-km runs through 12 cities around the world, climaxing with a final lap through New York City where he carried a flickering torch to the UN’s door.

Last week most UN countries did not take up that torch with enthusiasm. The lack of specific financial commitments deflated the hopes of many leaders on a continent that not only needs a drastic economic overhaul but, even with the new rainfall, continued short-term relief as well. In southern Sudan, the UN estimates that more than two million people are still threatened by food shortages. The drought there drove large numbers of peasants into towns in search of food, but supplies have been blocked by fighting in northern Uganda and attacks from antigovernment rebels inside Sudan. “The people are suffering,” said Bishop John Malau, a community leader in the town of Wau. “Every day more people come to us, and we have nothing left to give them.” That message of Africa’s agony is etched in the faces that flicker across TV screens around the world. Last week’s debate made clear that without massive outside help—and major internal reform—the dark days of the Dark Continent are destined to continue.

-BOB LEVIN with CAROL BERGER in New York and RUTH ATHERLEY in Toronto