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Commission for Africa Opens Consultations

The British-led Commission for Africa opened its East and Horn of Africa consultations in Nairobi Monday.

Speakers at the opening session called on rich nations to cancel the debts of African countries, restructure the nature and amount of trade, and increase development aid to the continent.

These are three of the recommendations participants will likely put forth to the Commission for Africa at its three-day consultative meeting, which opened in Nairobi Monday.

Kenyan Planning and National Development Minister Anyang Nyong'o told participants Africa continues to suffer poor economic growth because of heavy debt servicing, tied aid that is given on condition of recipients purchasing good and services from the donor and trade in which Africa exports primarily raw materials and unfinished goods.

"We must begin by creating a discourse that will turn underdevelopment on its head in favor of real development," he said. "I want to submit that Prime Minister Blair will make a difference to Euro-African relationships and interactions if they are for the first time based on really developing Africa rather than continuing to underdevelop Africa."

Mr. Nyong'o said African countries should be encouraged to export more finished, value-added products and manufactured goods.

He called on donors to fund projects to improve the continent's rail, roads, electricity and other systems to increase trade within and outside of Africa.

The planning minister also said the payment of Africa's massive indebtedness is diverting money away from social and economic development.

But Kenya's Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai said freeing up funds to pay for social services will do no good if the continent's leadership is corrupt. Ms. Maathai, who is Kenya's assistant environment minister, urged African leaders and citizens to share resources and commit themselves to fighting corruption.

She said good governance is key to development.

"We need to remind our people that they must not relax, that they must continue demanding democratic space, and they must continue demanding their rights and the rights of others," she noted.

The commission's consultations bring together representatives from a dozen countries, who are expected to come up with a list of recommendations to form what organizers call "action for a strong and prosperous Africa."

The commission, launched last February by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is expected to present the findings to meetings of the Group of Eight industrialized countries and the European Union.

Africa's debt burden is estimated to be about $230 billion. According to a paper presented by the British aid agency Oxfam, low-income African countries pay out about $39 billion per year while only receiving $27 billion in aid.

Oxfam estimates that debt cancellation would enable Ethiopia to double its spending on health care.

It says industrialized countries' policies often discourage African countries from exporting finished or manufactured goods. For instance, it says, the European Union charges an average import tariff of 21 percent on fresh fruit but a 37 percent tariff on fruit juice.