Last month, when leaders of the world's richest industrial nations gathered in Gleneagles, Scotland, high on their agenda was ways to reduce the poverty gripping the nations of Africa.  A few days before that meeting, many of the world's leading entertainers held concerts in cities around the world to focus attention on finding ways to relieve Africa's poverty.  In a telephone interview with VOA, former President Bill Clinton spoke about his recent trip to Africa and the challenges the continent faces.

Bill Clinton
Though he is now a private citizen, Bill Clinton is still paying a lot of attention to Africa, just as he did when he was president. He recently made a six-nation tour of Africa, aimed at focusing attention on the continent's AIDS crisis.

"I am doing this because I was always interested in AIDS and always interested in Africa and interested in Latin America and the developing world," he said.

During his years in the White House, Mr. Clinton made a commitment to help Africa by, among other things, promoting debt relief for the continent and working to remove obstacles that prevented African products from reaching markets in the West.  He was a strong backer of the the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which he signed into law toward the end of his presidency on May 18, 2000.  The act offers incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets.

Under AGOA, nearly 6,400 products made in Africa are granted preferential trade status. They can be exported duty-free from Africa to the United States until 2015.

While AGOA has won praise from advocates for Africa, many of them note there are still other issues that need to be addressed.  Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa, a U.S. organization dedicated to improving trade and investment ties between Africa and the United States, explains that Africa will continue to need outside help to overcome some basic problems.

"That includes infrastructure, greater governance, the development of small businesses. And, I think we are really going to have to look at the mechanisms for really financing the development of those small and medium-size businesses throughout Africa," he said.

President Clinton agrees that much more needs to be done to help bring the continent's natural resources to overseas markets, as well as to improve trade between the United States and Africa.

"I think a legitimate criticism would be that we have not done enough in enough countries to help build the infrastructure necessary to diversify their exports to the United States," the former president said.

Another area of concern is one of Africa's products that Western countries clamor for: oil.

So far, Africa's oil-producing nations have been the primary beneficiaries of AGOA.  Of the $26 billion that Africa earned from its exports to the United States in 2004, 87 percent of that money came from oil.

Some observers have expressed concern that America's interest in Africa's oil may prompt it to intervene in areas where it would not have before.  Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington says so far the United States has avoided involvement in conflicts taking place in oil-rich West Africa, but he adds that Washington's concerns over keeping peace in the region are growing, but not because of oil.

"It is also the case that the United States is worried about the civil conflicts in Africa a bit more than it used to be because of the possibility that it could have a link to the war on terror," he added.

Mr. Clinton dismisses the charge that America's interest in Africa is based primarily on its oil.  He says other countries are gaining a large share of Africa's oil precisely because they, unlike the United States, do not raise questions about human rights.

"The U.S. is no more focused on the oil than the Chinese and the Indians," he said.  "And a lot of West African states are bragging on the Chinese, because they say they have far less concern about the political developments inside the country than we do, so they can do business with them [the Chinese] without having to hear the lecture on democracy and human rights." 

While oil exports may now make up the biggest percentage of Africa's exports to the West, Mr. Clinton hopes that won't always be the case.  To increase exports of Africa's agricultural products, he wants EU countries and the United States to greatly reduce the subsidies they pay to their domestic farmers, which would give Africa's farmers a much better chance of getting what they produce in households around the world.