Bemoaning a neglected continent – Times journalist talks of needs and gaines in Africa

Published March 31, 2005 – Copyright The Daily Hampshire Gazette (Massachusetts)
By TOM MARSHALL Staff Writer
Bemoaning a neglected continent – Times journalist talks of needs and gaines in Africa
NORTHAMPTON – There was a moment in the early 1990s when the world didn’t avert its eyes from the continent of Africa.
The Cold War had just ended, recalled veteran New York Times journalist Howard W. French, and there was talk in America and Western Europe of a ”peace dividend.” The competition with the Soviet Union for military dominance was over, and perhaps all of those defense dollars could be spent to alleviate poverty and spur economic development, he said.
But that moment of attention was the rare exception for a continent that has been ”chronically and perpetually ignored and disregarded,” French said Wednesday in a well-attended lecture at Smith College.
The 1979 UMass graduate served as West Africa bureau chief for the Times from 1994 to 1998, after stints for the paper in Central America and the Caribbean and an early freelancing career in West Africa. His first book, ”A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa” was published last year.
French said American policy makers have found plenty of reasons to neglect a continent beset by brutal wars, disease, and famine. ”We throw up our hands and ask ourselves, ‘What good does it do to help those people?”’ he said.
But a little bit of attention and aid could go a long way in many African countries that rank among the world’s poorest, French said, suggesting that assistance might even prove beneficial to the U.S. economy in the long run.
”I don’t actually think we need to pour a lot of money into Africa,” he said. ”There’s a dirty little secret about aid. Most of what we call aid is business contracts for our own companies. It’s creating business opportunities for American companies.”
French said relatively small investments in potable water and health care could help reduce deaths and illnesses from water-borne diseases, increasing life expectancy and worker productivity.
Literacy instruction can also provide broad benefits in many areas, from commerce and governance to health care and gender equity, he said. ”Teaching kids how to read is something we understand and can make happen quickly.”
International trade agreements are ”blatantly rigged” in favor of industrialized nations, French said, citing U.S. and European protectionism in basic commodities like sugar and cotton that are mainstays to many African economies.
He cited a 2003 commentary in the Times entitled ”Your Farm Subsidies Are Strangling Us,” in which the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso called for an end to price supports for around 2,500 U.S. farmers that have the ”unintended but nevertheless real effect of impoverishing some 10 million rural poor people in West and Central Africa.”
And the U.S. can make a crucial difference in supporting fragile democracies that have already taken root in countries like Mali, Botswana, and Ghana, he said. Training lawyers, judges, bankers, and government officials to run efficient and transparent institutions is far easier than pressuring undemocratic regimes to change, he added.
Forcing African nations to pay off mountains of accumulated debt was both unrealistic and immoral, he said.
”Most of that debt is Cold War debt, contracted with absolute goons,” French said, referring to U.S.-supported dictators who often sent the money to their own offshore accounts. ”It’s simply an injustice to expect the world’s poorest people to pay debts that never served their intended purpose.”
French, who now covers China for the Times, said there were already plenty of success stories in Africa, including the end of apartheid in South Africa, dramatic reductions in AIDS transmission in Uganda, and the potential for peace in the Darfur region of Sudan.
If Western nations can help to build strong institutions and clear away barriers to trade, including arcane legal systems that make business risky, then investors could flock to Africa as they once flocked to undeveloped countries in Asia, he said. ”So let’s help create the conditions.”
Tom Marshall can be reached at

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