Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
6 - 12 April 2000
Issue No. 476
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Different priorities, a single plan

By Dina Ezzat, Niveen Wahish and Khaled Dawoud

The Africa-Europe summit is about "cooperation based on shared values". Or at least, this was how Roman Prodi, president of the European Commission, summed up the historic two-day meeting that concluded its work in Cairo last Tuesday evening.

Yet, as delegates from both Africa and Europe addressed the opening session on Monday afternoon, it was clear from the very start that their different agendas for the future pose many challenges and problems. Leaving to one side the need for political reform, African speakers chose instead to put the accent on the need for debt relief and economic assistance; while the Europeans, for their part, declined to commit themselves to any particular aid format, preferring instead to refer repeatedly to the need for Africa to adopt the defining values of human rights and democracy.

This dichotomy was aptly summed up in a few, sparse phrases. Thus Salim Ahmed Salim, secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), called for "faster, deeper, broader courses of debt relief under certain time frames"; while Antonio Guterres, prime minister of Portugal, whose country currently holds the chair of the EU, told the assembly, "I would like to see both Africa and Europe, as areas entirely devoted to peace, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, values that cannot be denied to anyone." Guterres added, "Democracy is not a privilege of the rich. It is a universal right."

These statements proved an accurate guide to the contents of the three sessions that were to follow, dedicated respectively to economic, political and developmental issues.

Yet in each session the discussion ranged broadly across these related themes, said Vijay Makahy, the deputy secretary-general for the OAU. According to Makahy, many African interventions addressing the need for debt relief also referred to the importance of human rights.

"We are not opposed to human rights and democracy," Makahy said. "Our countries have been working on these issues over the past few years." He explained that much as Europeans would say debt relief cannot take place overnight, Africans would argue the same applies to human rights, democracy and good governance.

According to Peter Hain, British state minister for foreign affairs, the EU is not trying to impose its definitions of these values on Africa. It does, however, expect Africa to prove its commitment to those principles.

"If you effectively say to British tax payers and British companies that billions of pounds sterling would be cancelled, then we must be absolutely sure that this money will not go into someone's back pocket," Hain said.

In the 'political' session that took place on Tuesday morning, the African leaders who took the floor, including President Hosni Mubarak and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, argued that there is no doubt that political reform must go hand-in-hand with a dedicated development programme.

Therefore, argued Tanzanian President Benjamin William Makapa, "Europe has and must accept the historic responsibility to mid-wife Africa into an equally benefiting member of an integrated and globalised world economy."

More diplomatic figures sought to establish 'partnership' as the buzzword echoing in the hallways of the Cairo International Conference Centre. As President Hosni Mubarak put it in his opening speech, "We are looking forward to the establishment of a new form of strong partnership between our countries, based on joint interest." Mubarak went on to insist on the importance of cooperation between the two sides in supporting African efforts to achieve economic development and a better standard of living.

Both EU and African representatives agreed that these broad principles form the key to solving the problems of the continent. Nevertheless, throughout the second session, devoted to explicitly economic themes, the Africans continued to stress the necessity of more generous debt relief to ease a burden that is obstructing the development of their countries. The Europeans, for their part, constantly sought to broaden the debate onto territory where they felt more comfortable.

Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, told the gathering, "The challenges facing political leaders are many. They are economic and social in the first place, but political too."

However, despite all the best European attempts to keep it away, the issue of debt relief kept on rearing its ugly head. Algerian President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, current chairman of the OAU, pointed out that Africa's spiraling debt burden, estimated at $350 billion, prevents it from maintaining basic social services. Bouteflika did not overlook the recent effort to alleviate the burden of the poorest countries through the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, but he insisted that this was only a beginning. It is anticipated that HIPC relief will cost around $28 billion, to be borne almost equally by bilateral and multilateral creditors.

Much more may be needed, but it is unlikely to materialise overnight. "One has to tackle problems slowly," Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a news conference ahead of the summit. She pointed to the existing initiatives for debt relief within the framework of the Paris Club of creditor nations, saying that the Europeans did not "want to duplicate agreements."

African emphasis on the debt issue, however, forced the EU to strive for a compromise. Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama said on Monday that key players have made several suggestions for a solution to the problem. And although, as he put it, "the solution will not be found automatically," the summit has paved the way for an on-going discussion of the issue.

Gama pointed out that although several countries, such as Germany, France and Morocco, have announced their readiness to forgive part of the debt owed them by certain African countries, bilateral debt agreements only cover a fraction of the amounts owed by the debtor nations. "The greatest percentage is owed to international financial organisations," he said, suggesting that the countries that have most influence over these organisations should push for a multilateral discussion of debt-relief policy within them.

Another way out for the indebted countries might be through a trust fund which was proposed, according to Romano Prodi, with the aim of pooling resources for debt relief. However, the President of the European Commission stressed that there would have to be precautions to ensure that the debt problem does not recur, and that countries receiving relief do not misuse the extra cash.

While holding back on the issue of debt relief, the EU was pushing strongly for increased regional cooperation and integration among African countries. Prodi believes that Europe should help African countries cooperate together, which in his opinion would help them attract foreign direct investment (FDI), and the transfer of know-how and technology, both of which are needed to promote more competitive economies. Last year, FDI in Africa was less than one per cent of total global FDI.

Africans, for their part, sought to secure increased access for their exports to the EU within the framework of the World Trade Organisation. Bouteflika complained in particular that "African exports which have a comparative advantage, such as textiles and agricultural products, have limited access" to the markets of the developed countries.

For the moment, however, the African countries have to content themselves with a scheme under which the most indebted countries will be allowed to export goods to the EU, in line with the concept of "asymmetric liberalisation." According to Gama, this is a mechanism that grants export licences to much-indebted countries which enforce sound macro-economic policies -- "a sort of most favoured nation status." The result is that while Europe opens its markets to their products, the countries thus favoured do not have to reciprocate. This may be a start. But it still falls far short of meeting Africa's comprehensive, continent-wide demands.

In the third and final session of the summit, the focus was on issues specifically related to development, including challenges to sustainable development and poverty eradication, investment in human resources, particularly education and health, food security, environment, drug abuse and trafficking, and cultural issues.

Many of the topics raised during this session were highly urgent, requiring immediate action by leaders of the two continents. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, who headed his country's delegation to the summit, issued an urgent appeal to the international community to provide food to several countries in the Horn of Africa in the wake of an alarming UN report warning of a looming famine. Mesfin said some seven to eight million Ethiopians faced the threat of starvation if no immediate help was provided to his country.

Paul Nielson, European Commissioner for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, told reporters that he discussed this issue with leaders of several African countries attending the Africa-Europe summit, and that arrangements were underway right now to ship some 800,000 tons of food to Ethiopia through Djibouti. European diplomats said that one reason for the delay in sending aid to Ethiopia was the fact that the African country had no ports to receive aid shipments, having in the past depended on Musawaa port, now in Eritrea. But after war broke out with Eritrea two years ago, Ethiopia stopped using the Eritrean port, and arrangements had to be made to ship in food through neighbouring Djibouti.

In the Cairo Declaration issued at the end of the summit, leaders of Africa and Europe affirmed that they would continue to work together to fight poverty and to integrate the pursuit of economic growth with political, social, environmental and cultural considerations. The two sides would also support the implementation of strategies and policies, as well as programmes that are directed at poverty eradication, especially in rural areas. They shared the hope expressed by the OAU for the creation of a world solidarity fund to address Africa's development with the focus on poverty eradication.

The slogan "education for all" was also much emphasised by leaders from both Africa and Europe during their last session. Meanwhile, in response to appeals by African leaders to provide assistance to combat HIV/AIDS pandemic, which constitutes a national emergency in many African countries, the Cairo Declaration stated that the two sides would work together to focus national HIV programmes on well-known and effective strategies for reducing the spread of the disease. They called on pharmaceutical companies to do their utmost to make medicines available at affordable prices to the poorest people, especially in the case of such a serious disease as HIV/AIDS. Governments and other donors were also asked to make more resources available for assisting African countries in their fight against the pandemic.

Fears that certain economic and development projects might be carried out regardless of their effect on the environment were also raised by African leaders. They confirmed the importance of ensuring the prohibition of the export and transit of hazardous waste to Africa and the necessity of taking into account the regional dimension in environmental issues.

Meanwhile, although the issue of the return and restitution of stolen African cultural products was repeatedly raised in statements made by African leaders and diplomats during the summit and in preparatory meetings between foreign ministers, the Cairo Declaration and the Plan of Action referred only briefly to the subject. The Africans are demanding that their monuments and cultural heritage stolen while under European colonisation should be returned to their countries of origin. But the final declaration merely stated, "With regard to cultural good stolen or exported illicitly, we have taken note of the concerns of African states and request senior officials of the bi-regional group to examine the legal and practical consequences of further action in this area and prepare a report for assessment at ministerial level in the framework of the follow-up mechanism, within reasonable time."

Like most issues raised during the summit, whether economic, political or developmental, no immediate moves to meet African demands were expected. Yet, although positive action may not be immediately forthcoming, the fact remains that this was the first time that the former European colonial powers were confronted directly with the demands and grievances of the independent -- and largely united -- African nations. Now they know for certain that their past crimes have not been totally forgotten, and that the African peoples will not easily give up their legitimate demands.

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