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Bush to showcase Africa policies in meetings with African leaders

WASHINGTON—When he took office four years ago, President Bush vowed to make Africa a priority, a promise that some critics took as an attempt to make people forget his claim during the 2000 presidential campaign that Africa doesn't fit into the United States' national strategic interests.

Since then, Bush has won over some skeptics by pledging $15 billion to battle HIV and AIDS in Africa, tripling development aid to the sub-Saharan region to $3.2 billion, creating the Millennium Challenge initiative to provide money to countries anywhere in the world that practice good governance and sound economic policies, and by brokering a peace agreement between Sudan's government and southern rebels that ended a 21-year civil war.

"He's done better than former President Clinton, who gave us a lot in terms of style but the dollars weren't there," said Melvin Foote, executive director for the Constituency for Africa, a group that fosters greater ties between American and African organizations.

Bush will once again showcase his African agenda Monday when he meets with presidents of Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Niger at the White House to discuss democracy, free trade, HIV/AIDS and economic development and security on the continent.

But while some Africa experts like Foote, a Democrat, praise Bush's work on the continent, others remain unconvinced. They say the president has promised a lot and delivered little, given the magnitude of the problems that afflict African nations.

He has come up billions of dollars short in promised funding for his Millennium Challenge program, and only one African country, Madagascar, has qualified for aid. The other recipient, Honduras, is in Central America.

Worse, critics contend, Bush hasn't moved aggressively to help stem atrocities in Sudan's Darfur region despite having called the situation there genocide against black non-Arabs by Arab militias known as the janjaweed.

"He's taken a page from the Clinton administration, he's done wonderfully on public relations, but he's done little for Africans," said Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a nonprofit group dedicated to reshaping U.S. policy towards Africa. "Africa's suffering is being manipulated to present the administration's compassionate conservative agenda."

White House officials call such assertions nonsense.

"The president is leading the way in making a strong commitment in Africa," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. "If you look at the actions we've taken, it shows a strong commitment to the continent and to saving lives."

Bush's focus on Africa comes at a time when the continent has become an international concern, prompted by a seemingly endless wave of humanitarian crises, worries that massive poverty will make the continent the next recruiting station for terrorists, and fears about the spread of HIV and AIDS. The virus and disease has already spread to 25 million Africans.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair sees increased African aid and debt relief as the solutions for Africa's problems and made them part of the platform for his successful reelection campaign.

Blair is hosting next month's Group of Eight Summit—an annual gathering of the world's top eight industrialized nations—in Scotland and intends to make Africa the focal point of the two-day meeting. The plight of the continent is also slated to be among the main topics during the United Nations General Assembly and the World Trade Organization later this year.

As G-8 host and the incoming president of the European Union, Blair has been trying to persuade wealthy nations like the United States to double their contributions to Africa development to $25 billion a year and forgive 100 percent of African international debt.

Bush rejected Blair's proposal when the prime minister visited the White House last week. Instead, Bush pledged $674 million in U.S. humanitarian aid for Africa. U.S. officials backed the decision Saturday in London to cancel $40 billion of international debt from 18 countries that include the African nations of Ghana, Mali, Benin, and Ethiopia.

Bush has been reluctant to simply increase aid or erase debt of troubled nations, fearing that such moves would reward poorly run or corrupt governments. Instead, he prefers doling out aid through performance-based measures like the Millennium Challenge initiative.

To qualify for grants, countries must show they are striving to adhere to law, root out corruption, respect human rights and promote economic freedom.

Through the initiative, Bush promised in 2002 to increase development assistance by 50 percent over three years, resulting in an annual increase of $5 billion by fiscal year 2006. But in his fiscal year 2006 budget, Bush asked for $3 billion for Millennium Challenge funding, $2 billion less than he'd promised.

Still, some Africa analysts believe Bush's approach is a sound one.

"Do you really want to write off Zimbabwe's debt?" said Roger Bate, who analyzes diseases in developing countries for the American Enterprise Institute. "The history of (African) aid for the last 50 years is that it has failed. There's a lot of validity to the U.S. approach."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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