Who cares about Africa?

Who cares about Africa? Me for one. And the Bush administration apparently does, too. That’s what Bush’s $10 billion aid proposal for Africa and the Bono and O’Neill 10-day tour of sub-Sahara Africa was all about. Wasn’t it?

This past Thursday, on the last day of the How-Can-We-Help-Africa?-tour, Bono was on CNN, sporting those hip sunglasses, being interviewed live from Ethiopia – a nation with an amazing past; however irrelevant to the American popular imagination, which sees Ethiopia as essentially a land populated by too many dark-skinned, big-eyed kids with bloated bellies and flies swarming around their innocent faces.

The CNN reporter asked the Irish rock star: why should Americans care about Africa? Maybe he was tempted to respond: “For the same reason Americans should care about Canada or Mexico or California or whatever community they happen to live in. More so than ever individuals are connected to one another – economically and politically. This is an age of interdependence and it is imperative we learn to live together. Like the Dalai Lama says: Be selfish. Be generous.”

But that’s not what Bono said. Instead, perhaps wisely, he appealed to the least common denominator: fear He said Bush advisors are worried that “there are ten potential Afghanistan’s in Africa” – a faint, partial echo of the broad concerns voiced by the nearly muted peace movement.

In announcing last month his proposal of a “Millenium Challenge Account” to boost aid to Africa, President Bush himself declared: “Poverty doesn’t cause terrorism. Yet persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair. And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror.”

No one disputes there are African states controlled by corrupt, greedy, incompetent thugs and that Africans themselves have lots of internal issues that must be resolved, if vibrant, prospersous democracies are to emerge.

Criticism is valid but a little perspective is needed also. As the history of states go, sub-Saharan African nations are in their infancy. The post-colonial era in Africa is less than 50 years old. And let’s face it: the origins of this country, the self-proclaimed “greatest nation on earth,” wasn’t exactly pretty.

Being able to point to African kings who sold other Africans into slavery or to 20th century African thugs like Idi Amin in no way absolves the U.S., and especially Europe, from the responsibility that comes with the exquisitely efficient exploitation of the African continent and its various people over the centuries.

Slavery is over, some will say. Africans must do for themselves. True. But we Americans must hold ourselves accountable for the predictable consequences of our own actions. Here’s the ethical principle I subscribe to: If you aren’t able to do something good for others, at the very least, do no harm. If you agree, then you’ll be interested to know the following:

Nearly 85 percent of the total increase in the foreign debt of the non-oil producing developing nations between 1973 and 1982 stemmed from four basic factors, none of which developing nations had any real control over: OPEC oil price increases; the surge in dollar interest rates in the early 1980s; a substantial reduction of Third World exports because of a worldwide recession; and the steep drop in the world price of primary exports from developing nations, according to William Kline’s study, “International Debt and the Stability of the World Economy.”

Now comes along the Bush administration’s $10 billion aid proposal for poor African countries that the Los Angeles Times reported last week may not be enough to offset the damage inflicted on Africa’s small farmers by the $190 billion farm bill No. 43 recently signed into law.

“This farm bill, I think it’s fair to say, will put millions of small farmers out of business in Africa,” says Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. “They will have to move to cities and become part of unemployed labor pools.”

The huge subsidies doled out to U.S. farmers will add to the global overproduction of wheat, corn, cotton and other basic crops, which will drive down world commodity prices, make it extremly difficult, if not impossible for unsubsidized Third World farmers to compete.

African nations, analysts say, will take the brunt of it on the chin because agriculture is a big part of their economies, accounting for more than 50 percent of the gross domestic product in some countries.

“Commodity prices will probably sink lower on a global basis. For countries that do not subsidize their farmers as well as we do, that will mean economic and financial trauma,” says Neil Harl, director of the Center for International Agricultural Finance at Iowa State University.

“We’re making decisions here in the U.S. that affect the entire world, yet the rest of the world doesn’t have much say in what our policy is,” he says, hinting at why there is so much anti-American sentiment in the world.

Some analysts fear the farm bill will sabotage the world trade negotiations held in Qatar in November. U.S. representatives presuaded many poor nations to support the trade talks, promising that wealthy countries would reduce their agricultural subsidies. World Bank economists say cotton exporters in West and Central Africa would take in an additional $250 million a year if the U.s. stopped subsidizing domestic production.

And International Monetary Fund analysts have a similar view, noting that this year’s U.S. cotton crop is expected to be the biggest since 1927, which means that farmers keep increasing production even though market prices have fallen sharply in the past few years.

Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, puts it succinctly: “It’s as though you have crippled economies, and you’re trying to get them back on their feet so they can enter the race. And then, just before the race begins, you whack them back from the starting line.”

The Bush administration Africa policy is looking more and more like giving with one ha0nd and taking with the other.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

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