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UN Official Says Fighting Crime Key to Improving Africa's Economy

The executive director of the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, declared Monday that Africa faces a serious crime problem that is undermining development efforts in the continent. Mr. Costa was in Rome to present a report by his office entitled "Crime and Development in Africa."

The U.N. report "Crime and Development in Africa" says official data on crime in Africa is sparse but all available indicators suggest it is one of the major obstacles to development on the continent.

Presenting the report at the Italian foreign affairs ministry in Rome, the executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said development planners should focus attention on the problem of crime in Africa.

He said: "The message in the report is that the cycle must be broken. Crime creates underdevelopment and underdevelopment creates vulnerability to even more crime."

Mr. Costa made clear the report was not aimed at accusing African nations of crime or their citizens of being "inferior" but as a an incentive to help African leaders make important decisions.

He said: "We believe we must stimulate African governments to include crime prevention and control in their national policies, strengthening technical assistance for cooperation, channelling it towards justice, governance and the rule of law."

The report will now be the focus of an international roundtable to be presided over by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in Abuja on September fifth and sixth.

Among the report's finding that will be discussed in Abuja are the huge disparities in income that exist in African nations. On average, the richest 10 percent of the population earn 31 times more than the poorest 10 percent.

The report also mentions the young age of the continent's population. Mr. Costa said this a factor, which in many countries is a strength, is a weakness in Africa because so few jobs are available.

He said that in the presence of strong unemployment, lack of adequate salaries and job opportunities, young people become the most dangerous criminal element.

Other factors that are believed responsible for high rates of crime in Africa include inadequate security and justice systems, the spread of firearms and conflicts. The report also highlighted the rapid rates of urbanization, saying the continent is urbanizing at about four percent a year, about twice the global average.

Mr. Costa also pointed to the social costs of African crime, which limit movement and access to possible employment and educational opportunities. He also said the problem of crime helps explain why international investors shy away from the continent.

He said crime is a disincentive to investments. Africa is the region in the world that receives the lowest investments as a percentage of GDP and the one that needs inveestment the most. He said Africa also has one of the highest rates of capital flight.

But Mr. Costa also expressed some optimism about the continent's future. He said a new political climate is spreading in Africa, with countries becoming more democratic and leaders appearing more committed to combating crime. He noted that the international community also appears committed to help the African people overcome their problems.