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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: The G8 & Africa - Reality Check by Ann-Louise Colgan

One year after the “Group of 8" (G8) rich country leaders proclaimed a new commitment to addressing Africa's challenges, this month's G8 summit reveals little progress on last year's promises and a growing divide between the priorities of this global elite and the majority of the world's population.

Last year's G8 focus on Africa was welcome and appropriate, as the continent finds itself at the epicenter of today's most urgent global crises – from HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases to extreme poverty, from environmental degradation to conflicts and humanitarian disaster. Yet the pledges of G8 leaders last summer were inadequate to the magnitude of these challenges, and their commitment to fulfilling even these limited promises has since been called into question. As the G8 holds its annual summit in Russia this weekend, new action is needed on several critical issues, which affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Africa's impoverishment is a function of many factors and international dynamics, but one of the most significant of these is the continent's massive debt burden. For years, African governments have been forced to spend more money each year repaying old, illegitimate debts to rich country creditors than they can spend on urgent domestic priorities. The fundamental injustice of this resource drain had long sparked activism across Africa and from solidarity groups worldwide, and this built the political will for debt cancellation by the G8 leaders last summer.

At last year's summit, the leaders of the world's wealthiest countries agreed to cancel the debts of 14 African countries (and 4 other countries), setting an important precedent and marking new progress on this critical issue. These countries were chosen for having met the rigorous economic conditions dictated by creditors in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief Initiative. The debt cancellation since enacted for this shortlist of countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has already enabled countries like Zambia to expand access to basic health care for their populations, and will allow a number of other countries to devote more resources to education, to the fight against HIV/AIDS and other priorities."

Yet, the G8 debt deal covers only one-quarter of African countries and only a portion of the continent's debt burden. Even after this deal, African governments must still pay $14 billion each year to rich country creditors, and most are therefore unable to spend any more money on health or other social services. New G8 promises of increased development assistance are simply negated by the drain of debt repayments. The onerous conditions attached to debt cancellation undermine human development and deepen impoverishment across the continent. Despite the fanfare accorded to last year's G8 debt deal, Africa's debt crisis is far from over and the G8 must revisit this issue and resolve it now.

Another critical issue affecting Africa and the world is the HIV/AIDS crisis, now in its 25th year. Africa is ground-zero of this global pandemic – home to two-thirds of those living with the disease worldwide – and the continent suffers devastating social and economic consequences as a result. Only a fraction of those living with HIV/AIDS in Africa have access to life-prolonging treatment, and hundreds of millions of Africans lack basic health care services as a result of the debt crisis and the continent's impoverished infrastructure.

Last year, the G8 promised to ensure universal access to anti-retroviral treatments by 2010, offering new hope in the fight against HIV/AIDS and in the lives of those affected by the disease. But the G8 failed to articulate a strategy to reach this goal, and at the recent United Nations (UN) Special Summit on HIV/AIDS, there was no new commitment to the investment necessary to expand access to treatment. There is a funding shortfall of tens of billions of dollars over the next several years, which represents a clear betrayal of the promises made last year at the G8 summit.

This month's G8 summit will include a focus on infectious diseases, including the Avian Flu. This subject will require special attention to Africa, where the same social and economic vulnerabilities that have fueled the HIV/AIDS crisis now leave the continent at risk from the Avian Flu. Such public health challenges have serious global implications. They underscore the need for rich countries to support African efforts to develop public health systems, retain health workers, and invest in a globally integrated and comprehensive response to these challenges.

If the upcoming G8 summit is to focus on the most urgent global issues, the ongoing crisis in Darfur, Sudan, must also feature on the agenda. As the government-sponsored genocide continues in Darfur, and the death toll approaches half a million people, the failure of international leaders to respond to this crime against humanity marks a shameful rejection of the notion of a “Responsibility to Protect”, asserted by world leaders at the United Nations last Fall. The people of Darfur face increasing violence and humanitarian disaster, and there is a global consensus on the need for a UN peacekeeping force to provide protection to civilians and humanitarian operations on the ground, but new action is needed from the G8 this month to achieve this step as a matter of priority.

The G8 represent the world's most powerful countries, and the agenda for their annual summit focuses mainly on these countries' political and economic preoccupations, but the G8 leaders represent only a small fraction of the global population. The interests and priorities of people in Africa and around the world demand greater attention from these leaders, and require new commitments, as well as follow through on previous promises. If the G8 are serious about supporting African efforts to address the continent's challenges, last year can't be the only occasion when Africa receives their focused attention.

Ann-Louise Colgan is Acting Co-Executive Director of Africa Action, the oldest Africa advocacy organization in the U.S. She can be reached at This article was published by The Foreign Policy Association.

Ann-Louise Colgan

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

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