U.S. bipartisan group calls for a new package of partnership with Africa

WASHINGTON, Mar 20 (G-77/IPS) - The United States should sharply increase both its aid and attention to Africa in light of historic changes on the continent, according to a bipartisan group of 68 top U.S. Africa and foreign policy experts.

The group, convened by The American Assembly, a prominent public policy forum, is calling for the urgent adoption of a ''Partnership with Africa,'' a package of trade, aid, and investment initiatives designed to consolidate democratic and economic reforms that have taken hold in many of Africa's 54 nations.

It is also calling for President Bill Clinton to travel to Africa to help focus attention on the opportunities presented by recent favourable political and economic trends there. The group issued its recommendations just as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton began a two-week trip that will take her to half-a-dozen African nations.

''What is required is not withdrawal but, to the contrary, a far greater and more meaningful engagement with Africa,'' according to a report issued by the group after a four-day meeting outside New York City, chaired by Washington's former ambassador to the United Nations, Donald McHenry.

The group agreed that presidential leadership was required to ensure that Africa received its due.

''For us to take real advantage of what is happening in Africa will require leadership at the highest levels of our government, as well as other sectors of American society,'' said David Miller, chairman of the Corporate Council for Africa who served as U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and Zimbabwe under President Ronald Reagan.

Miller co-directed the meeting with Howard Wolpe, a former chairman of the Africa subcommittee in the House of Representatives and currently Clinton's special envoy on Burundi.
Wolpe, who flew to Nairobi Monday for high-level negotiations on Zaire, is a leading candidate to become the next Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.

The major new recommendations of the group are mainly economic.

Its 17-page report calls for tax and other incentives to promote U.S. investment in Africa and help strengthen its private sector. It also urges Washington to scrap tariffs and other import restrictions, including textile quotas that hamper Africa's access to the U.S. market.

The report calls for the creation of a 300-million-dollar Africa Partnership Fund earmarked for those countries ''that demonstrate leadership in the consolidation of democratic institutions and the implementation of market-oriented reforms.'' The money would be in addition to the roughly 700 million dollars Washington currently provides in bilateral development aid to Africa.

In addition, the group urges Congress to clear U.S. arrears to the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank affiliate that provides almost 1.5 billion dollars a year in no- interest loans to African countries, and to the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Washington still owes 235 million dollars to IDA's Tenth Replenishment, which expired last year, and an additional 800 million dollars this year. The group suggests that Washington encourage IDA to adopt policies that would enable it to provide direct support to Africa's private sector development.
The United States should also work to improve the terms of multilateral debt reduction proposals for Africa's most debt- burdened nations, both by accelerating the time frame by which countries reforming their economies will be able to reduce their debt and by expanding the number of countries covered by the proposals.

On the security front, the report calls for Washington to clear its arrears -- over one billion dollars -- to the United Nations, and especially its peacekeeping operations account.

Economic growth rates of 35 African countries that have undertaken economic reforms have doubled and are now poised to accelerate, according to the report. Trade between the United States and only 11 countries in southern Africa is roughly equal to U.S. trade with all 15 nations of the former Soviet Union.

Despite some setbacks, political trends are also more favourable.

''We are now in a position to seize the opportunities provided by the emergence of (a) new, democratically elected African leadership committed to market economics, the privatisation of inefficient state industries, and popularly accountable government,'' the report says. ''These nascent changes, largely unforeseen a decade ago, are fragile and need to be supported.''

Some of the group's proposals -- especially the call to increase U.S. aid by almost 50 percent to reform-minded African countries -- fly in the face of conventional wisdom in Washington and Congress, which has sharply reduced foreign commitments, especially in regions not considered ''vital'' to U.S. interests.

The annual non-military international affairs budget, for example, has been cut by roughly 50 percent in real terms since 1985.

But the group's recommendations are striking because participants included both Republicans and Democrats, as well as representatives of business and humanitarian groups.

''This is a remarkable convergence of viewpoints among the American corporate community on the one hand and those private voluntary organisations working to advance democracy and human rights on the other,'' said Wolpe.