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Africans Look to World Economic Forum for Solutions 


Two thousand of the world's most powerful business leaders, politicians, and heads of non-governmental organizations are meeting this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss pressing economic and social problems. VOA's William Eagle reports from Washington that development activists and officials from sub-Saharan Africa are hoping to find some solutions to their problems at the meeting.

Officials of the World Economic Forum say about 60 business leaders, heads of state, and other officials are expected from Africa.

Among those who have confirmed are the presidents of Senegal and Nigeria. South Africa is expected to send its finance and commerce ministers, as well as the Central Bank governor.

Forum officials say African attendance is hard to confirm, since the Davos gathering concludes just before the start of a meeting of the Africa Union.

The Forum's Africa Team manager, Stephane Oertel, says this year's theme, the Power of Collaborative Innovation, highlights the failure to solve pressing problems, including climate change and nuclear proliferation. He says that innovation and collaboration are needed among large corporations, governments and other global stakeholders.

"Large corporations are so powerful that they need to play a bigger role, and governments have to become less suspicious of [them] fulfilling certain public duties," said Oertel. "These things will make a huge difference in Africa where the corporate sector is becoming more and more active. Some African governments are suspicious. We see it as part of our role to bring all these stakeholders together and get them to start a dialogue out of which action will grow."

Oertel says if collaboration among the world's most powerful and influential is going to take place, it is likely to happen at Davos. He describes a chance meeting at a past forum between two men with different careers but similar work - Peter Bakker, the chair and CEO of the Netherlands-based TNT corporation, which delivers commercial goods worldwide - and James Morrison of the World Food Program, which delivers emergency food aid to the hungry.

"They understood each other and started a friendship and a very fruitful collaboration whereby TNT is supporting the entire logistical network of the World food program, " said Oertel. "This is the power of Davos."

Collaboration and innovation. Conference organizers say they are the keys to solving a number of issues on the agenda. Among them are terrorism and climate change, which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will address at the opening of the meeting.

But South African Kumu Naidoo, head of the pro-democracy group CIVICUS, says he has a message for the U.S. official.

"I will be attending the session where Condoleezza Rice is speaking and I will say to her that if the United States and its allies are serious about addressing terrorism and insecurity, they need to be sure they do not [fight it by] accepting the decline of democracy," said Naidoo.

He says many African states, in the name of fighting terrorism, have restricted civil liberties, including detention without trial and racial and religious profiling. He says he has failed to get U.S. officials to take tough action against Ethiopia, a key ally in the war against terror. Ethiopia has detained two members of Naidoo's organization for two years.

Other issues at Davos will likely include a debate over the direction of the world economy. A report issued by the Forum warns of the economic uncertainty that could occur if the dollar continues to drop and the U.S. goes into recession.

In that case, African exports to the United States could drop, but Oertel says if China continues to increase its demand for African goods, Africa could avoid an economic downturn.

He also says Africa could benefit from sovereign wealth funds - large sums of money invested by Asian and Middle Eastern governments.

"It is not quite a safe haven but Africa has been resilient to a lot of the fluctuation in markets lately and stock markets have had very strong returns in recent years," said Oertel. "So, a lot of that liquidity might end up going into a select few African countries that can prove to the investors that they are stable and their investments will be safe."

Another major issue is the rising price of food.

Oertel says there are various reasons for the problem. The amount of food being raised is limited by climate related conditions like floods and drought. Also, land once used to grow food now grows grains for biofuels. Meanwhile, there is an increasing demand for food from the middle classes of China and India.

What is more, it costs more to transport food because of higher fuel prices. And the decline in the U.S. dollar means it buys less food for international relief groups than before.

"Africa is being forced to buy foods more expensively; the U.N. in crisis regions finds it hard to buy sufficient food to help as we saw earlier this year in Kenya and Mozambique," said Oertel. "[Also] there is not enough food [on the market]. If a commodity becomes rare, prices go up and that is what we have been observing over the last year as a consequence of shortages of certain grains. We will have a session [at Davos] on agriculture to see how to boost production and bring food prices down for basic commodities."

Davos Leaders are also likely to discuss the failure of the World Trade Organization talks, that had promised to decrease or drop agricultural subsidies to Western farmers. Subsidies make their products cheaper than local goods on African markets.

"A specific example is West Africa, where an efficient cotton industry is undermined by cheap subsidized cotton from the United States," said Amy Barry, a trade spokesperson for Oxfam. "If you removed the subsidies, there would be a direct and measurable economic benefit to poor farmers and communities in West Africa that depend on cotton to make a living."

It is not clear if the electoral crisis in Kenya - and its economic ramifications for Africa - will be added to the agenda. A Forum spokesman said that it is WEF policy not to invite candidates competing in national elections.

Others say, the topic is likely to come up in sessions planned on good governance in Africa, and that informal meetings might be held with non-governmental organizations, businessmen, and others interested in discussing the issue. But at this point, it is not clear whether any Kenyan officials will be attending.

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