The significance of Mr Brown's trip to Africa

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The turmoil in Westminster over the Labour leadership will no doubt continue despite Gordon Brown's absence for one week on his first official visit to sub-Saharan Africa. But nothing that goes on at home can be permitted to distract attention from the profound significance of the Chancellor's trip. This is a year when the plight of Africa must not be allowed to slip off the political agenda.

The turmoil in Westminster over the Labour leadership will no doubt continue despite Gordon Brown's absence for one week on his first official visit to sub-Saharan Africa. But nothing that goes on at home can be permitted to distract attention from the profound significance of the Chancellor's trip. This is a year when the plight of Africa must not be allowed to slip off the political agenda.

It is appropriate that the Chancellor of the Exchequer - the man who holds Britain's purse strings - is making this journey. All developed nations have a deep financial responsibility towards Africa. The continent's crippling debts must be cancelled and international aid budgets increased. Otherwise, there is little chance that the UN's Millenium Development Goal of halving world poverty by 2015 will be achieved. The Chancellor will pursue this agenda when he chairs a meeting of international finance ministers in London next month, as part of Britain's presidency of the G8. This is an opportunity that must not be squandered.

Mr Brown has spoken of his desire to create a "Marshall Plan" for Africa that would emulate the unprecedented investment and reconstruction aid that the US government ploughed into Europe in the wake of the Second World War. The suitability of this analogy has been challenged, but it is apt. A bombed-out and exhausted Europe returned to prosperity in the decades after 1945. Africa has the same potential today. Yet it is crucial that Africa is seen by the developed world as an economic partner, not just a recipient of aid. When the Chancellor tours Mozambique and Tanzania this week he will see at first hand the damage that the European Union's iniquitous trade polices inflict. The real "scar on the conscience of the world" is not Africa itself, but our role in exacerbating its misery.

The world's developed economies must allow African producers full access to their markets. Aid and debt relief are important, but only when the continent is allowed to trade on equal terms with the rest of the world will it break free from poverty. The Chancellor has already done much to ensure that Africa looms large in the public consciousness. His task this year is to turn his fine words into reality.

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