Julian Filochowski: Bob wasn't wrong about George. But $15bn for Aids is just a start

When it comes to Africa, it's not just how much, but how and where, writes Julian Filochowski
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The Independent Online

Bob Geldof proclaimed last week that George W Bush is the best US President for Africa since John F Kennedy. In the run-up to the G8 Summit in the French town of Evian, which starts today, Bush announced a massive $15bn over five years to fight HIV/Aids. The question is, does this constitute a genuine watershed in the way the world's richest country and the rest of the G8 nations approach Africa's problems? Does it really mark a break with the past and a new hope for Africa?

Any overview of the immense challenges facing Africa must put the HIV/Aids pandemic high on the list. Almost 30 million people living with HIV and two and half million dying from Aids each year in Africa make this a defining moment for the continent.

The Aids crisis is leaving hundreds of thousands of households headed by children as young as nine or 10 years old. Whole villages now have only the young and the aged to look out for each other's survival. And this corset-shaped demography is damaging the development prospects of most of the African continent. Deaths in Africa have now become so frequent that businesses have restricted staff to attending only the funerals of their closest family members. Orphaned children drop out of school because they cannot afford to pay the fees, and they are crowding women out of the informal economy.

The United Nations estimates that the pandemic is slowing economic growth rates by between 1 per cent and 3 per cent per year. For economies that are, for the most part, barely outpacing their population growth rates, this is a debilitating setback for their development prospects. The full effects of HIV/Aids are still spreading, and are yet to be quantified by development agencies and African governments trying to reverse the pandemic.

On the face of it, Bush's additional $3bn a year is an impressive sum. While still some billions short of the UN's estimate of $7bn a year needed to tackle the pandemic, the Bush plan will buy life-extending drugs and is intended to provide humane care to 10 million people. This is badly needed and should not be discounted. Indeed, as Bob Geldof has pointed out, it's more money than Bill Clinton's rhetoric on Africa ever managed to produce. But the causes of the spread of the pandemic are, like its consequences, multi-dimensional. Tackling the disease requires an approach that encompasses the full range of development policies.

HIV/Aids and other public health crises, such as malaria and TB, thrive in families and communities marred by poverty, malnutrition, economic migration and ignorance. The accelerators of disease are found in Africa's collapsing health and education infrastructures.

Donors share a responsibility for this. Millions of Africans were denied access to primary healthcare and education when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forced their governments to charge for these basic services as part of the conditions attached to aid and debt relief.

We are faced with a flawed practice of dictating from the top down how African governments should spend aid money. Bush's plan focuses narrowly on the provision of anti-Aids drugs and health education programmes rather than on a broader approach that would enable more children to attend school and remove some of the obstacles to Africa's development and poverty reduction plans. Longer-term solutions behind Aids and other crises in Africa are only going to be forthcoming when donors respond by supporting the priorities identified by progressive African governments. They must mobilise their resources behind anti-Aids and poverty reduction plans designed by Africans themselves. So far, the G8 has failed to pursue such a collaborative and mature approach.

This weekend Bush will be meeting other G8 leaders and a handful of African governments in Evian. He will clearly be pointing to the large sums of money behind his anti-Aids drive and challenging European Union countries and Japan to match it.

The G8 leaders have collectively failed to understand that it's not just the amount of money that is important but the way it is given. Both aid and debt relief often come with damaging anti-poor conditions attached, such as the IMF's insistence on privatisation. The few African leaders who have been invited to the Evian summit will be calling for a different approach. Their proposal, called a New Partnership for Africa, is based on the recognition that the era of development policies designed in Western capitals and then imposed on supplicant governments has too frequently failed the poor.

One of the African proposals is for a new approach to debt. The African leaders want the amount of debt relief to be determined by the finance necessary to achieve their poverty-reduction plans. Their calls have been echoed by citizens in all the G8 countries. Five years ago, a demonstration by 70,000 activists at the Birmingham G8 meeting put debt and development on the agenda of the summits of the world's most powerful heads of government.

Those of us who gathered for the peaceful protest in Birmingham were moved by what we saw as an issue of social justice. We argued that it is wrong that those with the least should be made to repay their debts to those who already have the most. To us, it seemed absurd that the poorest of the poor should sacrifice their own and their children's life chances in order to maintain a debt repayment regime that none of them had any voice or control in contracting.

The Jubilee 2000 Campaign mobilised millions of people around the world and forced the G8 leaders to make a dramatic response to the debt crisis. Yet for debt campaigners, the G8 promise of an end to the injustice of unpayable Third World debts remains unfulfilled. The G8 meeting in Cologne in 1999 promised $111bn of debt relief spread over 40 years. The member countries are now committing themselves to providing about a third of that amount.

The limited debt relief that has trickled through has led to higher spending in Africa on health, education and investment in agriculture. But African governments are still left short of the finance needed to meet the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goal to halve poverty by 2015.

The scandal is that the money required to write off the debts of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa is, in global terms, barely significant. It has been costed at little over $6.4bn spread over five years. Compare that with the $350bn that rich countries subsidise their farmers with every year.

And the irony is that in the week before Bush's announcement on the Aids bill, the US Senate voted for deeper debt reduction that would go some way to restore the capacity of African governments to finance their own poverty reduction strategies. But the Bush team in the US Treasury effectively vetoed it.

So Bush's announcement on Aids is not a watershed. Like most of the G8's approach to Africa, it is critically flawed by its belief that the donors hold the prerogative on development policy.

A radical and successful approach to Africa needs donors to co-ordinate their resources behind African-owned and agreed poverty reduction plans. The world's richest countries need to break with failed approaches of the past by supporting African strategies designed with the widest possible consensus of the people who will be implementing those plans, strategies that have been influenced by the poor, who are the intended beneficiaries.

This week will be the third time the G8 has invited progressive African governments to meet at the rich man's table. This time they must not only be heard; they must also be heeded.

Julian Filochowski is director of the aid agency Cafod