UN targets aid to build a new Africa

DAVID ORR

Nairobi

The United Nations biggest ever campaign for the development of Africa - recognised as "the world's foremost development challenge" - was unveiled amid much fanfare yesterday.

The so-called Special Initiative on Africa was launched by Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, in tandem with the World Bank and UN agencies in Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Paris and Rome.

"Now is the time for the United Nations and international community as a whole to stand together with Africa," he said. "Now is the time for us to forge a new partnership.

"We want today to tell Africa solemnly it isn't alone, it isn't abandoned, it is more than ever in the sight of the world . . . I'm not appealing to the generosity of the international community, I'm appealing to its conscience," he said.

The programme, whose estimated cost over a 10-year period is $25bn, aims to expand basic education and health care, to promote peace and better governance, and to improve water and food security.

The huge cost of the initiative will have to come from a re-direction of existing UN resources and from a readjustment of African governments' often much- criticised spending priorities.

It will also require fresh financing from Western governments equivalent to about 20 per cent of current development aid flows to Africa. The sources of funding, given the UN's current financial difficulties and the pressure on aid budgets, are vague.

Despite the upbeat tone of the initiative, which suggests that Africa's prospects for economic recovery are better than ever, the continent remains the only one where, on UN measures, poverty is on the rise.

And though its leaders and visiting aid experts never tire of expounding on its abundant promise and potential, Africa has been beset over the past three decades by repeated economic and social crises.

The results of structural adjustment - the ideology of economic management devised by the World Bank and often criticised by African leaders - have been modest and progress has fallen well short of expectations.

The poor, and particularly women and children, have been the first to suffer as governments have sought - often under extreme duress from the donor community - to live within their means.

Africa has been largely left behind as countries in Asia and elsewhere have made better use of their resources and competed more effectively on the world market.

Africa's countries include 22 of the 25 nations identified by the United Nations as having the lowest human development levels in the world, while 33 of the world's 47 least developed countries are African.

Access to such basic services as health care and primary education in Africa remains lower than anywhere else, while population growth and infant mortality levels are higher. It is estimated that by the turn of the century one-third of the world's poor will be living in the African continent.

So at a time when many countries continue to be torn apart by conflict - among them Burundi, Sudan, Somalia - the timing of this new UN endeavour is crucial.

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