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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 02:32 pm

Life and debt

Africa needs more than just humanitarian aid


Before embarking on a five-nation tour of Africa last week, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama expressed concern about the perception that he could deliver to the continent, as he told the Chicago Tribune, “the largesse of the U.S. government.” Though one of the most prominent and respected black politicians in America, Obama frequently tries to underplay how much juice he has by pointing out that he ranks 99th in seniority in the Senate, where he is the only African-American.

The immediate political significance of Obama’s Africa trip will be almost purely symbolic. But as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and someone whose name many Democrats wouldn’t mind seeing on a presidential ticket one day, Obama has the power to do more good in Africa, which is home more than 30 of the world’s 40 poorest nations, than he’s willing to admit.

During the tour, Obama, whose father was born in Kenya, hopes to gain a deeper understanding about a couple of African issues that garner significant, albeit insufficient, attention from the American media: genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region and the AIDS pandemic.

Real progress toward building Africa’s infrastructure, staving off disease, and solving humanitarian crises won’t be achieved until the United States and our European allies get serious about eliminating African nations’ $200 million in debt, a subject that rarely ever comes up.

Saddled with the obligation to repay loans — which were often paid out to despotic rulers, many of whom have since died, been overthrown, or otherwise put out of office — these countries aren’t able to invest in their societies. The AIDS crisis is inextricably tied to debt cancellation. With a debt burden of 806 percent of its fiscal revenue as of last August, the central-African nation of Congo (one of the stops on Obama’s itinerary, along with South Africa, Kenya, Chad, and Djibouti) can’t afford to build a clinic to treat AIDS patients — or a road to get them there, for that matter.

There have been steps forward. In 1996, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Africa’s two main creditors, developed the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. Then, at last summer’s G8 Summit, in Scotland, the leaders of the world’s richest countries agreed to wipe out the debt of the 40 most heavily indebted nations, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, by reimbursing the World Bank, IMF, and African Development Fund.

On July 1, the World Bank announced the commencement of $37 billion in debt relief over 40 years. “Countries will now be able to put more resources into programs that directly help those who need it most — the poor who need better education, better health services and greater access to clean water, for example,” World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz said in a statement.

Wolfowitz’s critics, such as Washington, D.C.-based organization Africa Action, which advocates full, immediate, and unconditional debt forgiveness, dismiss the HIPC Initiative as merely a scheme for partial relief. As the single largest shareholder in the IMF and World Bank, the United States could pressure the lenders to go even further in eliminating African debt, the group says.

However, American politicians have been slow to respond because of a “misconception that the job [of debt cancellation] is finished,” says Africa Action program associate Diana Duarte, who calls the debts “odious” and “illegitimate.”

Now that Saddam Hussein has been deposed, the administration of President George W. Bush supports the cancellation of debts incurred by the Iraqi dictator. It’s high time that the White House recognized, as Obama has stated, that strengthening ties with Africa, which could be a breeding ground for terrorism, is as much in America’s strategic interests as corralling allies in the Gulf region.

If anybody is going to convince the Congress and American citizens of this, it’s Obama, who should start having this conversation with the president, as well as the congressional leadership of both parties, as soon as he returns.

Contact R.L. Nave at