Blair backs new drive to transform Africa's dire outlook

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Tony Blair launched a Commission for Africa yesterday in an attempt to rethink the problems facing the continent which is the only major region in the world to have grown poorer in the past 25 years.

A team of top-level international politicians, economists and opinion formers have been given 12 months to produce a report which will place Africa at the top of the agenda during Britain's year as chair of the rich nations club, the G8, and during the UK's presidency of the European Union.

It is an ambitious undertaking, modelled on the Brandt Commission in the 1970s which set the development template for relations between the rich and poor worlds in the Cold War era. Its report, in 1980, was called North-South.

Since then, Africa's share of world trade had halved, Mr Blair said, announcing his new initiative at a press conference in Downing Street. And millions of people have died from famine, disease or conflict.

The task of the Commission "will be a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Africa and policies toward Africa - what has worked, what has not worked and what more can and should be done", he said. Without it there was a danger that the targets set by the United Nations in 2000 - the Millennium Development Goals to halve poverty by 2015 - would not be met, he admitted.

The initiative will cover a wide range of areas including economic issues, education, conflict resolution, health, the environment, HIV/Aids, governance and culture.

Commissioners will include: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown; Michel Camdessus, the former director of the IMF (nominated by the French President, Jacques Chirac); Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker, former chair of the Senate Africa Committee (nominated by George Bush); Trevor Manuel, the South African minister of finance; Bob Geldof, the musician and campaigner; K Y Amoako, the Kenyan secretary to the Economic Commission for Africa; Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia; and Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development.

"I will chair the meetings of the Commission and I expect each commissioner to consult widely," Mr Blair said. Among those to be consulted will be development specialists, political scientists and economists, philosophers, cultural anthropologists and opinion formers.

The Commission received a cautious welcome from aid agencies. The British Overseas Aid Group, which includes ActionAid, Christian Aid, Cafod, Oxfam and Save the Children, issued a statement that said: "Any initiative that provides real solutions is a welcome step." But it warned against "yet more targets, plans or strategies that fail to deliver".

The man behind the idea for the Commission, Bob Geldof, said yesterday, at a launch held by the Department for International Development, that the initiative would only work "if we tell the truth - about our failures and theirs and about this deadly tango were entangled in".

Sir Bob said he came up with the idea for what he called "a Brandt 2" when he returned from Ethiopia struck by how "piecemeal" were the various approaches to Africa's problems. He proposed the idea to Mr Blair, who entered Parliament the year after Live Aid and immediately formed a Band Aid cross-parliamentary committee. "It will be a report card from the Live Aid generation," Sir Bob said. Next year is the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. "I'm really excited at the prospect that this report will have genuine political clout".

To the accusation that the Commission would be another talking shop producing another dust-gathering report, Mr Blair said: "It's up to us to make sure it isn't." He would be looking, he said, for "specific solutions" on development, conflict resolution, governance and economic issues, he said, not just proposals on trade and debt.

The aim was "to regalvanise the international community to act", he said. "And it is easier to get people to take action if a report is published just before a summit." The Prime Minister concluded: "I have said on many occasions that I believe Africa is the scar on the conscience of the world. And I think it is right that we continue to treat this as an absolute priority over the coming years."

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