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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 January, 2005, 13:21 GMT
Africa Commission: Waiting for the action

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News

A lot has been said by western countries about helping Africa, but if the promises are kept the New Year could be a good one for the continent.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa is due to report in the next few months - just before Britain hosts the G8 leaders as head of the powerful group of nations.

Mozambican sugar workers
Mozambique's sugar workers would benefit from bigger EU quotas

A lot has been said by Tony Blair and by the West, but now Africa is waiting for the rhetoric to be turned into action.

Some analysts like Richard Cornwell from the Institute of Security Studies in South Africa are a little sceptical.

"It's all very well, but let's see some actual commitment. From the documents I've seen on the Africa Commission there's no radical plan, nothing particularly new," he said.

"I don't understand Blair - he seems to be sending confused messages about what should be done."

And like other analysts, Mr Cornwell asks whether the disaster in South-East Asia will now eclipse the G8 meeting which appeared to be Tony Blair's big chance to impress upon world leaders the best way forward for the continent.

A lot has been made of the phrase "African solutions to African problems" and after all it's far better to have a long-term and sustainable plan if it's what Africans want.

But Africa's a big and diverse place and it is argued that policy generalisations from the west won't succeed.

Debate rages

Professor Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco is an economist in Mozambique and he is not convinced by these commissions or planning bodies in the west.

Poorest continent:
How Africa compares with the rest of the world

"I would prefer to see a commission with Africa rather than for Africa," he said.

"Tony Blair has his own Commission for Africa and the United States has its millennium goals - and everybody is getting new programmes to engage African countries in new planning exercises without any meaning.

"Instead of creating groups for Africa, bring the resources, the think tanks here. Give us the space to develop policies that are more adequate for us. Give us space to make mistakes and to correct them if necessary. Don't impose economic systems on us."

Knowing how to help different countries in Africa and even different industries within those countries is difficult according to Anna Locke, an adviser on agriculture to the Mozambican government.

She says the debate over whether the west should increase aid or improve trade is still raging.

"It's very hard to generalise, but a lot of producers in a country like Mozambique are small and very scattered and can't respond to a grand opening of the market - in the way another industry like sugar can, as it's very organised."

Seeking level playing field

Mozambique had a strong sugar sector in the 1970s, but civil war changed all that.

Jose Chilengue
We are looking more for better access to European markets rather than financial aid
Jose Chilengue, Mozambique Sugar Producers Association

Now it is getting back on its feet thanks to European Union quotas which guarantee suppliers a high price.

Jose Chilengue from the Mozambique sugar producers' association wants the quotas to be extended as for every 15 bags of sugar produced only one goes to the EU.

The rest make far less money being sold on the world market.

"We are looking more for better access to European markets rather than financial aid. In order for us to compete on the same grounds with producers in Europe, then they have to stop being subsidised," he said.

There are many calls for the EU farm subsidies to be stopped - but if that did happen Mozambique's sugar would be sold at a fraction of the price.

The country does not want liberalisation, but it wants to continue the quotas - the favouritism and the protectionism. This can change over time, but for now it wants to expand that special help.

But Mozambique's cotton industry would love trade liberalisation to take place - it just shows how confusing the situation is and how careful the Commission for Africa and other western policy makers must be when deciding on how to treat "Africa" as a whole.

Striking a balance

"It's a continent made up of a lot of countries and there is a huge difference in economics and development between them," argues Mr Cornwell.

 Xinavane sugar factory, one of only four in Mozambique
Mozambique's sugar industry is getting back on its feet

And "Africa" is looking out for itself. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa is leading peace efforts in Burundi, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan - where for the first time and African Union force is monitoring a ceasefire.

They call it "peer review" and it is on the G8 proposal list for things Africa will do to encourage better trade, more aid and investment - the carrot if you like.

A group of charities, interest groups and celebrities is launching the Make Poverty History campaign in the UK this year.

They have promised to pressure Mr Blair into making changes - now his Africa Commission has to come up with a plan that will strike the right balance.

It is a difficult task - as is forcing the G8 countries to take note - but it is something the Commission, and Tony Blair, need to do if they are not going to become just another failed attempt by the west to try and help "develop" Africa.

The BBC's David Loyn
"It's hard to see how Africa will benefit"

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