A number of African leaders are gathering in Johannesburg to discuss progress - or lack of progress - on meeting the goals of the New Partnership for African Development, or NEPAD. The success of the three-year-old NEPAD project is a matter of fierce debate.

The two-day session started with sharp words from heads of several key African states.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade was perhaps the bleakest, saying he could not name a single concrete achievement of NEPAD. He warned its organizers against confusing NEPAD's accomplishments with those of the African Union or individual countries. And he warned against spending too much time in meetings, which he termed talk shops.

But NEPAD secretary-general, Wiseman Nkhulu, defended the program, saying it is designed as a catalyst for change. He said its role is to inspire and energize, and talking is part of the process.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who also heads the African Union, was more upbeat than his Senegalese counterpart, but also warned that the continent's problems run deep.

He said, "We have generated the confidence and the energy to deal with our problems, and we have designed holistic and realistic responses to make life better for our countries and for our peoples. We must not shy away from the fact that underdevelopment and dependence remain at the core of our problems. Most of our people still lack basic human needs. Unemployment and underemployment remain high. Terms of trade have not improved in any significant way."

African leaders launched the NEPAD program in 2001 to ensure that participating nations will hold themselves to principles of good governance and democracy. In return, they ask for trade and investment - not aid - from the industrialized world. The Johannesburg meeting is the third-annual dialogue aimed at examining NEPAD's progress.

The host, South African President Thabo Mbeki, told delegates they need to evaluate the program honestly.

He said, "I would hope, finally, that we speak to one another frankly, without diplomacy. Are we engaging these challenges in the way that we should? Are we, the Africans, responding to this as we should? Are our regional economic communities operating as they should? Are these leaders of mine, who are sitting here, are they doing what they should be doing?"

NEPAD leaders say 24 countries have signed on to the program's African Peer Review Mechanism, which is designed to encourage political stability, economic growth and sustainable development. A panel of highly esteemed Africans will evaluate those nations on their political, economic and corporate governance.