Africans Are Ready for Bold Change, With Help

The International Herald Tribune

Wednesday, March 14, 2001

 

Africans Are Ready for Bold Change, With Help

Horst Köhler and James D. Wolfensohn

 

    WASHINGTON- Africa's leaders are committed to far-reaching changes that will help the continent escape from the vicious circle of poverty and share in the prosperity enjoyed by so many elsewhere in the past two decades.

 

    Africa knows that exceptional efforts will be needed to restore peace to countries engulfed by conflict, tackle the AIDS crisis and stem the spread of malaria and tuberculosis. Governments will have to push ahead with effective economic and social

 policies and invest in human and physical capital.

 

    The need for decisive action could hardly be more urgent. Almost half of all Africans live on less than $1 per day. AIDS has reduced life expectancies sharply in some countries.

 

    At the same time, development aid to Africa has fallen from $32 per head in 1990 to $19 in 1998, despite evidence of the effectiveness of such assistance in countries with sound economic and social policies.

 

    We have just returned from a joint visit to Africa, where we met with 22 heads of state and with civil society leaders, and spoke candidly about the problems they face. We were deeply impressed by a new spirit of leadership and determination, a recognition that Africa's future lies in its own hands.

 

    The international community must rise to the challenge of helping Africa. It is simply unacceptable that while the developed world enjoys unprecedented prosperity, one in seven African children will die before his or her fifth birthday. It is time that politicians and voters in rich countries realized that without a bright future for the poor, the future cannot be bright for the rest of the world.

 

    On our visit we heard from national leaders how to achieve their vision. They recognize that there can be no more "business as usual." They are convinced that peace must come from within Africa. They know that good governance and a level playing field are essential to set Africa on the path to prosperity.

 

    Central to their efforts to reduce poverty are higher economic growth, improved access to education and health services, and containing the devastating effects of AIDS. We heard a new emphasis on bolstering private investment and exports through homegrown policies, good governance, better use of technology and an efficient infrastructure.

 

    But the challenges are daunting. Without real help for their reform efforts, further debt relief and external financing, they will not progress fast enough to make a real difference. International support is vital. Take trade. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for    only 2 percent of world trade. Yet research by the World Bank and others shows that granting free access to industrial countries' markets for these African countries - particularly for agricultural products and textiles - would result in growth for Africa worth billions of dollars per year.

 

    We strongly endorse free market access for poor countries to industrial countries' markets, where tariffs on meat, fruits and vegetables can exceed 100 percent. The European Union's decision to phase out trade barriers is an important step in the right     direction.

 

    Developed countries could help by reducing their agricultural subsidies. The industrial nations of the OECD spend more than $300 billion a year on these subsidies, roughly equivalent to the entire GDP of sub-Saharan Africa.

 

    Rich countries' governments must honor their aid commitments. Aid is not charity but a vital investment in global peace and security. We would gladly join a campaign to convince industrial nations to move to the long-standing United Nations target for official development assistance of 0.7 percent of GNP within 10 years. Current levels of foreign aid, at some 0.24 percent of yearly GDP, fall far short of this promise. The difference between these figures is worth a hundred billion dollars a year.

 

    And we must work with the countries involved to make sure that Africa does not again fall into a debt trap.

 

    We at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund regard debt relief, especially for the poorest countries, as crucial to our mission of alleviating poverty.  Last year we led the debt reduction initiative that brought $34 billion in debt relief to 22 poor countries, of which 18 are in Africa. We have been working with national governments to develop comprehensive poverty reduction strategies, drawing on the experience of civil society groups, as well as donors, in their preparation, to ensure that money goes where it is most needed.

 

    We recognize that we have more to do. In the coming months we will be supporting countries in their efforts to use debt relief for poverty reduction. In particular we hope to see debt relief extended to countries emerging from civil conflict and trying to put themselves back together again.

 

    The World Bank has committed half a billion dollars to fight AIDS, and will commit more once that is spent. At the same time, in line with African proposals to reduce conflict in the region, we will be moving swiftly to cut assistance to aggressor countries.

 

    We will step up our work with African governments to build an enabling environment for private investment, both domestic and foreign, which is so important for economic growth and poverty reduction. We will respond to leaders' requests to help build their capacity through technical assistance and training on a larger scale.

 

    The fight against poverty requires courage, commitment and sustained effort. It requires new partnerships and a spirit of cooperation. It will succeed only if it is based on a strategy designed by the affected country itself. Governments, together with their people, must be in the driver's seat.

 

    We have great expectations. With Africans themselves insisting on leaders who govern for the good of people rather than for themselves, the sharply disappointing experience of the last 40 years can become a thing of the past.

 

    This will be all the more possible if the international community mobilizes behind African countries willing to work for the benefit of their people.

 

    Mr. Köhler is managing director of the IMF and Mr. Wolfensohn is president of the World Bank Group. They contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

 

Copyright © 2001 The International Herald Tribune