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Last Updated: Friday, 27 February, 2004, 20:58 GMT
Blair unveils 'Africa action-plan'
By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent

The British government has launched an ambitious plan to analyse Africa's problems and submit potential solutions.

Tony Blair
Blair is determined to tackle Africa's woes
The plan's backers call it a unique opportunity to save Africa. Sceptics say it is a talking shop designed to restore Mr Blair's reputation with his own party faithful who have always expressed compassion for the disadvantaged of the world.

Called the Commission for Africa, the plan will pull together a broad analysis of the continent's development challenges, then, in 2005, submit a plan for tackling them.

During that year Britain will hold the chairmanship of the G8 rich countries and the European Union presidency.

A statement from the British Department for International Development said: "The commissioners' work will help inform the UK's agenda for Africa next year."

Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer in the last 25 years
Tony Blair
Officials said the themes of the commission report are likely to include the economy, education, conflict resolution, health, the environment and HIV/Aids.

This is a huge agenda, but Africa has negative indices in all of these areas.

Bright spots

British government-compiled figures say, for example, that Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer in the last 25 years, and that - on current trends - about half of the states of Africa will not meet any of the UN-declared Millennium Development Goals.

UK PM Tony Blair
Campaigner Bob Geldof
Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi
South African finance minister Trevor Manuel
UK Chancellor Gordon Brown

These goals include cutting poverty, getting children to school, and improving health services.

There are some bright spots on the African record as well.

The British Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn, said at the launch of the commission that while in 1973 there were only three elected African heads of state, by the year 2000 there were 32.

The commissioners in the think-tank, to be chaired by Mr Blair, include his powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), Gordon Brown, who is already involved in debt relief initiatives for underdeveloped countries, and Mr Benn.

Among the Africans in this north-south commission are South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

"It is a commission composed of Africans and non-Africans and is therefore better placed to come up with a package that takes into consideration the views of all the partners of development in Africa," Mr Zenawi said.

Geldof factor

The Irish rock star Bob Geldof, a long-time anti-poverty campaigner, is also involved. He said he knew, from private conversations with Mr Blair, that the British PM was passionate about helping Africa.

Bob Geldof
Bob Geldof suggested the commission to Mr Blair

The commission, Geldof said, will bring together a wide range of information and proposals which will then have weight behind them.

The proposals will come, uniquely, he said from "a serving, powerful prime minister of a resurgent economy" and will be delivered to Mr Blair's G8 and EU colleagues with "true political bite".

It was a good public relations move by the British government to get Geldof on board - he is a colourful figure given to blunt language.

At a well-attended press conference to launch the commission, it was surely Geldof, with his rock star appearance and tendency to swear liberally, who was the attraction, not the besuited and by comparison rather dour Mr Benn who sat next to him on the stage.

Blair's 'big idea'

The charity Action Aid said: "With commissions and reports, there is often a considerable gap between rhetoric and reality. It's outcomes that matter."

The charity's head of policy, Matthew Lockwood, also questioned the composition of the commission.

"The people sitting on (it) are very much the great and the good. We'd also like to see those representing the grassroots and people living with HIV/Aids invited on. That would help ensure that any recommendations have relevance for poor and marginalised communities."

In the end what may make this commission different from previous initiatives like the Brandt Commission on poverty of 20 years ago, which was fronted by a retired politician, is Mr Blair's personal involvement.

Sceptics may say Mr Blair, who is under fire in Britain over why the country went to war in Iraq, must be looking for a fairly uncontroversial big idea to sell.

On the other hand, the UK is indeed going to be in a good position to influence international agendas when it becomes the centre of the rich world's conference circuit in 2005, and if London pushes an African agenda it could have some effect.

'Blot on world's conscience'

Recent British initiatives and policies, whether you agree with them of not, have had a significant influence in, for example, Sierra Leone and the Great Lakes region.

As a major former colonial power, the UK also has unrivalled contacts and knowledge of much of the continent.

Mr Blair's catchphrase for Africa is that it "remains a blot on the conscience of the world".

When he says this he certainly sounds like he's speaking with the passion Geldof refers to.

If Mr Blair really feels that the plight of the continent is a blot on the conscience of the world, just maybe he'll do something about it.

Blair launches Africa commission
26 Feb 04  |  Africa

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