Despite their close personal relationship and their shared vision for Iraq, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair remain at odds over the issue of poverty in Africa. Their failure this week to agree on a solution illustrates just how much of a challenge Blair faces in getting the United States and other industrialized nations to embrace his proposal to increase by $25 billion the amount of annual aid to African nations.
The two leaders meeting in Washington made progress on a related issue, namely the cancellation of poor countries' debt. Blair was able to get Bush to agree that money used to cancel the debt must not come out of future aid.
But the question of what to do to alleviate the suffering of millions of people in Africa remains unanswered today. The president did pledge $674 million for famine relief, an amount the prime minister described as only a small step toward his ultimate goal.
"We're trying to create a framework in which we deal not just with one of the issues to do with Africa, but all of them together," Blair said. "In a situation where literally thousands of children die from preventable diseases every day, it's our duty to act, and we will."
For his part, Bush praised his partner in the war in Iraq for his vision and leadership "on this important subject" and insisted that progress is being made to help the poorest countries in Africa "gain a fresh start."
According to the World Bank, 34 of the world's 48 poorest countries are in Africa. With 11 percent of the population, Africa accounts for only 1 percent of the world's economic output.
As we have noted on many occasions, corruption has been the greatest enemy of progress in the continent. From dictatorial regimes, to greedy civil servants to criminal gangs, there has been no shortage of individuals willing to enrich themselves at the expense of the populace. Add to that the civil wars, the AIDS epidemic and natural disasters, and the problems seem intractable. But as Blair correctly notes, rich countries have a moral obligation to do something to ease the suffering of so many.
Aware that citizens in their respective countries have grown weary of sending money to nations that are being misgoverned, Bush and Blair did issue a warning of sorts that African leaders would do well to take seriously.
In tying aid to good governance, the British prime minister said, "It is a two-way commitment. We require African leadership also to be prepared to make the commitment on good governance, against corruption, in favor of democracy, in favor of the rule of law. ... What we're not going to do is waste our countries' money."
Along those lines, President Bush will be meeting later this month with the leaders of several Western and Southern African nations to celebrate elections held last year in each and hold them up as models of democratic progress.
But while he is singing the praises of the presidents of Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Namibia and Niger, he should also make it clear that the situation in Darfur in the Sudan and the corruption in Zimbabwe are a stark reminder that too many African countries have little chance of surviving unless other lawful nations step in to force change.
Prime Minister Blair has his heart in the right place when he talks about the urgency to end poverty in Africa. But as his meeting with President Bush showed, turning his words into action will take a lot of hard work.