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2005-06-08

Salih Booker on Africa Debt: The Poorest Regions in the World Have Subsidized the Richest

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President Bush refused to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s request to double aid to African nations. Instead, the two leaders announced a U.S. aid package of $674 million dollars from funds previously appropriated by Congress. We speak with Salih Booker of Africa Action. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met in Washington Tuesday for the first time since the release of the so-called "Downing Street Memo." The memo is actually the text to the minutes of secret meeting in 2002 between Blair and his senior national security team. It reveals how the former director of the British intelligence agency, MI6, told Blair that the U.S. had already made plans to attack Iraq as early as July 2002.

While the memo has seen relatively little attention from the corporate media, calls for a full investigation have gained momentum in Congress. Bush and Blair were asked about the memo at a joint news conference yesterday in Washington.

  • President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington DC, June 7, 2005.

The focus of Bush and Blair’s public appearance was on aid to African nations in advance of the Group of 8 summit in Scotland next month. Bush announced that both countries are developing a proposal for the G-8 that will eliminate 100 percent of that debt but neither leader gave any details on the proposal. And as Chair of the G8, Blair has promised to focus on fighting poverty in Africa and addressing global climate change. But Blair’s appeal to Bush to double U.S. assistance to Africa fell on deaf ears. Instead, at yesterday’s press conference, the two leaders announced a U.S. aid package of $674 million dollars. The money will be drawn from funds previously appropriated by Congress. The White House said this was in addition to the 1.4 billion dollars the United States has already pledged to contribute to the United Nations" Africa fund. At yesterday’s news conference, Bush insisted that the U.S is in fact increasing aid to Africa by threefold.

  • President Bush, Washington DC, June 7, 2005.

According to The New York Times, most Americans believe that the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries, it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent. In an editorial today titled "Crumbs for Africa," the Times writes "At a time when rich countries are mounting a noble and worthy effort to make poverty history, the Bush administration is showing itself to be completely out of touch by offering such a miserly drop in the bucket."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bush and Blair were asked about the memo at a joint news conference yesterday in Washington.

REPORTER: On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says, "Intelligence and facts remain fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action." Is this an accurate reflection of what happened? Could both of you respond?

TONY BLAIR: Well, I can respond to that very easily. No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all. And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations. Now, no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me. And the fact is, we decided to go to the United Nations and went through that process, which resulted in the November 2002 United Nations resolution to give a final chance to Saddam Hussein to comply with international law. He didn’t do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action. But, you know, all the way through that period of time, we were trying to look for a way of managing to resolve this without conflict. As it happened, we weren’t able to do that because, as I think was very clear, there was no way that Saddam Hussein was ever going to change the way that he worked or the way that he acted.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I, you know, I read kind of the characterization of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of his race. I’m not sure who they dropped it out is, but I’m not suggesting you all dropped it out there. And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There is nothing farther from the truth. My conversations with the Prime Minister was how can we do this peacefully, what could we do, and this meeting, you know, evidently that took place in London happened before we even went to the United Nations or I went to the United Nations, and so it’s — look, both of us didn’t want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It’s the last option.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a joint news conference in Washington Tuesday. The focus of Bush and Blair’s public appearance was on aid to African nations in advance of the Group of 8 summit in Scotland next month. Bush announced both countries are developing a proposal for the G8 that will eliminate 100% of that debt. But neither leader gave any details on the proposal. And as chair of the G8, Blair has promised to focus on fighting poverty in Africa and addressing global climate change. But Blair’s appeal to Bush to double U.S. assistance to Africa fell on deaf ears. Instead at yesterday’s news conference, the two leaders announced a U.S. aid package of $674 million. The money will be drawn from funds previously appropriated by Congress. The White House said this was in addition to the $1.4 billion the United States has already pledged to contribute to the United Nations’ Africa fund. At the news conference yesterday, Bush insisted the U.S. is, in fact, increasing aid to Africa threefold.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We tripled aid to Africa. I mean, Africa is an important part of my foreign policy. I remember when I first talked to Condi, when I was trying to convince her to become the national security advisor, she said, "Are you going to pay attention to the continent of Africa?" I said, "You bet." And I fulfilled that commitment. We’ve convinced Congress to triple aid. We’ve got a significant HIV/AIDS initiative that we’re undertaking. We start what’s called the Millennium Challenge Account. And we’ll do more.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush yesterday in Washington. According to The New York Times, most Americans believe a quarter of our budget goes to poverty relief. In fact, it actually spends well under a quarter of 1%. In an editorial today titled "Crumbs for Africa," the Times writes, (quote), "At a time when rich countries are mounting a noble and worthy effort to make poverty history, the Bush administration is showing itself to be completely out of touch by offering such a miserly drop in the bucket." We now turn to Salih Booker, Director of Africa Action, joining us in Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Salih.

SALIH BOOKER: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, your reaction to President Bush’s response to Tony Blair’s request in the whole news conference yesterday?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, I think President Bush’s response is completely disingenuous. It’s a sham, and in fact, it’s insulting. The announcement of $670 million for famine relief is money that was already approved; it is not something new. And it doesn’t respond to what Prime Minister Blair came to Washington to discuss, which is reaching an agreement on a plan for debt cancellation and how to finance it for African countries, and also Tony Blair’s push to get the rich companies to double their official development assistance to Africa.

Now, when President Bush says that he has tripled aid to Africa over the past several years, it’s simply not true. It’s another case of the Bush administration using Arthur Andersen accounting in terms of coming up with numbers. The United States for the last many years has provided slightly less than $1 billion for all 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. What he’s adding to that are various forms of emergency food assistance, some of the money of the HIV/AIDS initiative. This is not development assistance. These other moneys appropriately are responding to disasters, are responding to needs for humanitarian relief. But they are not investments in the economic development, in health care, in education, in agriculture.

And so, when Prime Minister Blair speaks about the need for rich countries to double foreign assistance to Africa, he’s speaking about official development assistance, and the United States is ranked at the bottom of all of the wealthy countries when it comes to the amount of assistance we provide for poor developing countries, as a percentage of our gross domestic product.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the debt? What does it mean to write off the debt?

SALIH BOOKER: Right. Well, and it requires explanation, because African countries owe some $300 billion in debt, primarily to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the I.M.F., as well as some of the rich country creditors. Now, this debt is based largely on loans that were made to African governments during the Cold War years. Most of this debt essentially is illegitimate. It’s what’s known as odious debt. These loans were made to unrepresentative governments, in many cases military dictators, in some cases dictators that the U.S. C.I.A. helped put in power, like Mobutu Sese Seko in the former Zaire. The money went to these individuals. It was not used for the benefit of the citizens of these countries, and it’s continued to accumulate because of compounded interest over the years, even though African governments have continued to service this debt. In fact, they’ve paid it off several times over, but it keeps growing because of the interest.

Now, odious debt in the case of Iraq, the Bush administration wants creditors to cancel Iraq’s debt. Iraq has some $120 billion in foreign debt. The Bush administration appointed former Secretary of State, James Baker, to travel around the world and get creditors to agree to cancel Iraq’s debt. And he has succeeded, at least with some $70 billion. The argument about odious debt has not been applied to Africa as it should be. Certainly, African governments and African civil society argues that we don’t owe, we shouldn’t pay. But the rich countries continue to stall any final plan on debt cancellation.

Now, what they’re talking about right now, what’s on the table, certainly represents progress, but we have to bear in mind this is progress that has come as a result of the actions of activists in Africa, African government demands and activists around the world, including here in the United States, that have been campaigning for debt cancellation, in many cases for decades. It’s illegitimate debt. African governments are spending more money on this debt than they spend on health care or education for their own children. These debts suck some $15 billion out of Africa each year. And that’s more money that’s going — than is going into Africa in the form of new loans or new official assistance or foreign direct investment. So you have this tragic irony where the poorest region of the world is in effect subsidizing some of the wealthiest institutions and economies in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Salih Booker of Africa Action, Paul Wolfowitz is making his first trip to Africa as head of the World Bank and held a news conference in Washington. He’s going to be going to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and South Africa. This is an excerpt of what he had to say.

PAUL WOLFOWITZ: As I have said many times, Africa will be my first priority. It is, I think, the first priority for the Bank. The Bank has a unique role to play in Africa, and there is a unique need for the Bank in Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Wolfowitz, again the former Deputy Secretary of Defense, was considered one of the chief architects of the invasion of Iraq. Your response to this trip, Salih Booker?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, it’s, of course, a great concern to all those in Africa and here in the United States that have been campaigning for cancellation of World Bank debts, that have been campaigning for an end to the World Bank essentially dictating economic policies to African governments, because it holds such enormous leverage over the finance ministers of African governments.

With the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz, there is even more reason to be concerned. Activists used to refer to James Wolfensohn, the former president, as a Wolfensohn in sheep’s clothing at the World Bank. With Wolfowitz, people are simply saying it’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing. His record as a co-conspirator and architect of the war on Iraq is very troubling in terms of what does that mean in terms of his vision of development in Africa. It’s a man who has no experience in the development — in the world of development professionals, of poverty reduction. He certainly has no experience in Africa. And his vision of what is required in terms of responding to Africa’s enormous challenges is certainly out of sync with the visions of, not only African governments, but more importantly, African people.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question. The U.N. now estimating three million children will die because of famine in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of the global community’s failure to meet its promises of aid.

SALIH BOOKER: Well, this simply underscores the point that The New York Times made in their editorial. And they had it exactly right: "Crumbs for Africa." The chronic famine that a number of countries face, like Ethiopia or Eritrea, the food insecurity, is just a symptom of the larger issue of the growing disparities between this wealthy minority represented by the G8, the leaders who will meet in Scotland next month, and the vast majority of the world, as indicative of the plight facing so many Africans on the continent. When you have this rich minority in a position of absolute control over the institutions of global governance, like the World Bank or the I.M.F., the U.S. being allowed to appoint the president of an international institution like the World Bank, the Europeans have their pick in appointing the president of the I.M.F. Then you understand that we live in political economy of essentially global apartheid, international minority rule, where this tiny minority of rich states are dictating economic rules, political rules that the rest of the world must follow if it’s going to have access essentially to financing for development. But, again, this issue of how famine in Africa is manipulated by the Bush administration to show its compassionate side, that’s exactly what yesterday’s press conference was all about. It appeals to the worst of American ignorance to this racist preconception of Africa as a continent just of starving people and, gee, isn’t the United States generous in giving more food assistance, as a way of denying the real role of the United States and other rich countries in impoverishing Africa and in dictating the economic terms, whether it’s trade, whether it is investment, whether it is access to development resources.

AMY GOODMAN: Salih Booker, I want to thank you for being with us, Director of Africa Action, joining us from Washington, D.C.

SALIH BOOKER: Thank you, Amy.

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