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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 October, 2004, 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK
Africa body offers new start
By David Loyn
BBC developing world correspondent, in Ethiopia

The Commission on Africa, a British initiative to re-examine the problems of the continent, meets in Africa for the first time on Thursday.

Children living in a slum in Angola
Sub-Saharan Africa has been trapped in a cycle of poverty
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will host other members of the commission, including the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the rock singer Bob Geldof, who has remained committed to Africa since being involved with the Band Aid record for relief for Ethiopia exactly 20 years ago.

Next summer, at the time of the 20th anniversary of the Live Aid concert, Tony Blair has made a commitment to put Africa at the centre of Britain's presidency of the European Union, and leadership of the G8 group of industrialised nations.

The commission is an attempt to inject fresh impetus into finding solutions for the only continent which has got poorer in the last 20 years.
We [the developed world] have never really stopped to ask them [Africans] questions, and when they have told us things we haven't really listened, because we had all the answers
Bob Geldof

The involvement of Ethiopia as host is more than just a coincidence.

Britain sees it as one of the countries which is leading the way in finding solutions to the problem of poverty.

Currently five million Ethiopians remain dependant on food aid, but an ambitious agricultural development programme is on track to end the need for food aid to Ethiopia in less than four years.

In a BBC interview ahead of the meeting, Mr Meles said that for Ethiopia the biggest priority for the Africa Commission is to ensure fairer terms of trade through the Doha round of negotiations in the World Trade Organisation.

"In the long run we can only trade our way out of poverty - the rules of the game are stacked against us," he said.

"We would like to see a fairer trading environment so that we have a fighting chance."

But Bob Geldof believes that if that is all the Africa Commission does then it will have failed.

New awareness

He is searching for a much more radical approach to Africa's problems, which will certainly include criticism of corrupt African leaders as well as demands for the developed world to live up to existing commitments.

Bob Geldof
Geldof has championed the developing world for decades
He acknowledges that there may not be a "silver bullet" - a single solution.

But he sees the Africa Commission as the first opportunity since the end of the Cold War to reframe the terms of the relationship between the richest and poorest countries in the world.

"We've never really stopped to ask them questions, and when they have told us things we haven't really listened, because we had all the answers," he said.

"That simply hasn't worked. You need a radical change in the way we think about each other, and the compact we agree between each other."

America's "war on terror" also provides a new context for the debate.

Using characteristically blunt language, Geldof says that until 9/11, America saw other countries as "targets or markets", but since then they have had a much more complex relationship with developing countries, recognising poverty as a potential source of terrorism.

The biggest danger is that the Commission for Africa becomes another talking shop, stifling rather than promoting action on Africa.

Action, not talk, is what is needed.

Noble intentions

Possible solutions to poverty have been well-enough rehearsed since the Brandt Report first framed the terms of the debate in 1977.

Only a handful of countries have reached the target of 0.7% of GDP transferred in aid to the developing world every year which was recommended in that report.

Despite a doubling of the budget for the Department for International Development since Labour were elected to power in 1997, Britain's contribution is still only at around 0.4% of GDP, while America is at the bottom of the table, at just above 0.1%.

A number of other key Brandt recommendations have also been ignored by the richest countries in the world. Why should the Africa Commission be any different?

The members of the commission first met in Downing Street, and after the Addis Ababa meeting they will probably only meet as a group once more before their report is finalised next spring.

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