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World Bank President: Africa Is First Priority

When he became World Bank president 14 months ago, Paul Wolfowitz said it was clear that Africa had to be at the top of his list. Poverty on the continent has doubled in the last two decades. Nearly half of all Africans live on less than a dollar a day. AIDS and malaria overwhelm the continent, and most African children still don't complete primary school. But Wolfowitz said that his recent visits to more than a dozen countries in sub-Saharan Africa have given him reasons to be hopeful about Africa’s future.

“In my view, it's not a healthy world when so many people, concentrated in such a major continent, are slipping behind,” Paul Wolfowitz told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington recently. “I felt when I was coming into this job that Africa had to be the first priority of the World Bank, simply because of its need.” But Wolfowitz said he also sees signs of progress in sub-Saharan Africa. Fifteen countries have sustained economic growth rates of more than four percent in the last 10 years. Fewer wars rage on the continent. And the concept of good government is taking hold in some places.

“More countries are adhering to their own constitutions,” he said. “The voices of civil society and parliaments to become stronger, and people are demanding stronger public governance and government accountability.” The World Bank chief said one of the most impressive examples is Liberia, now emerging from more than 20 years of civil war. “Last November, the voters there elected Africa's first woman president who ran on a platform of good government, anti-corruption, and reform, and defeated a popular soccer star,” he noted. “I think that says a lot about the maturity even of voters in extreme poverty, and a good deal about what the people Liberia really want. They still have incredible challenges ahead of them. Liberia is a country that needs almost everything, even desks for the schools. But Liberia now has a chance."

Wolfowitz said that rich lender nations have reformed their policies, by cooperating in anti-corruption efforts, for example. They've also pledged to double aid to Africa, to $50 billion by 2010, and to cancel the debt of the poorest countries. As for the World Bank, it will increase financing for smaller businesses – and return to underwriting large infrastructure projects, such as roads and dams, that Wolfowitz said were justifiably criticized in the past.

“Some big mistakes were made,” he acknowledged. “White elephants were built. There was corruption on big infrastructure projects, roads that went to nowhere. There was environmental damage by some of the ill-conceived projects. But I think that doesn't change at all the fact that people need electricity to run businesses." And he said that one of the most positive signs is that Africans themselves are taking the lead in overcoming the challenges facing their nations, and that African energy and ambition remain the continent’s best hope.