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US Senators Look at Ways to Implement Commission for Africa Reforms

The Commission for Africa, chaired by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, concluded earlier this year that the international community now has to deliver the support that Africa needs to embark on the path of sustained economic growth. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from two members of the commission on what the U.S. role should be in helping Africa.

Over the past quarter century, development indicators in sub-Saharan Africa have actually declined while the rest of the world has moved forward. Life expectancy is 42 years of age compared to 59 in India and Bangladesh. Africa's share of world trade has dropped from six-percent in 1980 to two-percent today, and food production has plummeted so sharply that a continent that in 1960 was a net exporter of food now has to import one-third of its grain.

In a speech in Washington earlier this week outlining British foreign policy, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the stakes in Africa's development are high. "More is at stake than that sense of our common humanity. Africa's future is of enormous importance for the whole of the world. We've got to ensure that their future is one of a positive contribution to the global economy and global society, and not of a continent which is a source of disease and conflict or a safe haven for terrorists and criminals," he said.

Mr. Straw said the Blair government would make Africa a top priority at the summit of the world's wealthiest nations that Britain is hosting this July.

Speaking at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this week, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold said, while the top U.S. foreign policy priority remains fighting terrorism, a top priority in Africa is combating poverty. "It's easy to understand that if we want strong African partners in our fight against terrorism, then we need to be strong partners ourselves in Africa's fight against poverty," he said.

One problem, according to Senator Feingold, is that simply issuing reports and recommendations and actually changing policy on the ground are two very different things. How, he asked, can the United States foster sustained, creative engagement given the complex political realities on the ground?

Commissioner Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a former U.S. Senator herself, encouraged the committee to identify one or two immediate priorities outlined in the report, such as infrastructure, security or education, and focus its efforts on these areas. She also encouraged the Senators to look into increased spending on U.S. diplomatic missions in Africa.

"I personally believe that the (U.S.) presence there can be very valuable if you have an active embassy and foreign service officers who are out in the community. I hate that because of our fears that we've become more withdrawn because it's absolutely essential to know what's going on and to be engaged in the country as a whole," he said.

Her fellow commissioner, Tidjane Thiam, a London-based businessman born in Ivory Coast, agreed that more preventative diplomacy is needed. He also urged the Senators to look at ways the United States can stem the African arms trade. "I don't believe that there is one machine gun produced or manufactured in Africa - there's a big issue around the arms trade and the trade around small arms. There is a whole series of measures around conflict goods and so-called "booty futures" - the fact that people can sell forward their natural resources and raise revenues to finance a rebellion or conflict somewhere. All that can be controlled today very effectively by the international financial system so I think there is much the United States can do to make life more difficult for people who want to start an armed conflict in Africa," he said.

Mr. Thiam said the committee should examine ways the United States can strengthen the capability of the African Union to intervene in regional crises. "I think we have to work with the African Union. We also recognize that it's a less than perfect organization today, but it's a reflection of some of the weaknesses of African states, and it's the only organization we have and it's the most effective and the best able to intervene," he said.

Both Commissioners argued that peace and security must form the bedrock of any long-term development strategy for Africa. Only if there is stability, they said, can the private investment needed to create jobs the continent so desperately needs begin to flow to the region.