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Analyst Sees Limited Substance in First Lady's Africa Visit

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush continues her four-nation Africa visit Wednesday in the Mozambican capital, Maputo. Among her activities, she will meet with President and Mrs. Guebuza of Mozambique and participate in a women’s empowerment roundtable. Yesterday in Dakar, Senegal, the first lady pledged U.S. support in improving education and combating AIDS in Africa.

Emira Woods is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. She told VOA her organization sees limited substance in the U.S. First Lady’s current visit to Africa.

“Laura Bush and many of the administration officials have been in and out of Africa. It’s not anything new. In this instance, I think there are about four countries where she’s visiting, and we see a lot of rhetoric, a lot of protocol, but really not much substance coming out the visit,” she said.

During Mrs. Bush’s tour, she has been visiting programs funded by President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The president recently asked Congress to double the $15 billion, five-year commitment to contain AIDS.

But Woods said PEPFAR is propelled by political consideration.

“First let’s put it in context. I think we have to be very clear that the PEPFAR, as it is called, the President’s initiative on HIV/AIDS which also includes funding for tuberculosis and malaria, is minimum at best, and second it is politically driven. There are significant portions of the fund that are dictated by the Bush administration’s political ideology, in particular the emphasis on abstinence only, the emphasis on be faithful program,” Woods said.

In Dakar, Mrs. Bush reportedly awarded scholarships to five girls funded by the Africa Education Initiative, which is supposed to make 555,000 scholarships available to African girls by the year 2010.

Woods agreed that education for girls is critical for Africa’s development, but she said the scholarships must be looked at in the broader context of the Bush administration’s policies.

“Because of the principle underlining the Bush administration’s policies, which essentially says poor people can afford to pay for education. In African countries it is called user fees. Here in the U.S., privatized schools are called chartered schools. Whatever it is, it is taking out the role of governments to provide the core basic services for their people,” Woods said.

Woods does not disagree with the argument that donor countries have the right to demand how their development assistance to Africa is used. But she said the way for Africa to avoid too much dependence on foreign assistance is to best manage the continent’s vast resources.

“I think if you look at the richness of Africa, what we need really is to unleash the economic potential of Africa to put the resources of Africa for the benefit of Africans. It is critical that that happens so that we don’t continue the cycle of having our resources stolen from us while we then go with the beggar’s bowl to London or Washington and elsewhere,” Woods said.