Nickels and Dimes

Given the magnitude of the crisis, there is cause to celebrate this week in the tentative accord on African debt relief that was reached in Washington between President Bush and the visiting British prime minister, Tony Blair. Thanks to Blair’s persuasiveness, Bush has now agreed to lift America’s objections and let the World Bank proceed with a wholesale cancellation of debt payments from the poorest nations of the bleeding continent.

The mission was an urgent one. Decades of mismanagement and bad planning have left much of the developing world saddled with mountains of debt to global lenders. While some nations, particularly in Asia and Latin America, have managed in the past decade to negotiate their way out of the pit and begin a recovery, most of Africa has not. The continent and its 1 billion residents sink deeper into poverty, debt and misery.

The burden of servicing the debt now sucks up whatever limited capacity Africa’s poor might have for lifting themselves out of misery. Canceling the debt, on the model of the biblical Jubilee, has been taken up as a cause by a broad coalition of developed nations and world financial institutions, from the European Union to the International Monetary Fund. The main sticking point was American reluctance. That has now been lifted. Once technical disagreements are ironed out, as much as $1 billion a year will be freed up for food, medicine and essential development. That is progress.

And yet, because of the magnitude of the crisis, the U.S.-British agreement, as hard-won as it is, remains shamefully inadequate. Africans are dying by the millions every year from starvation and from easily preventable and treatable diseases. Malaria alone kills about 1 million a year, mostly children, mainly because they lack $3 mosquito nets to protect them while they sleep. The scale of human suffering on that continent is nearly incomprehensible.

But it is not irreparable. As we have noted on this page before, detailed rescue plans have been drawn up by international working groups. They envision a tripling of current international aid levels by the rich nations within a decade, to about seven-tenths of a percent of GDP, in order to feed the hungriest and begin to rebuild their economies. The goals have the backing of nearly all the world’s industrialized nations and virtually every responsible global financial body. Only the United States, the world’s largest economy, stands opposed.

Blair’s goal on his trip to Washington this week was to win Bush over to a more modest target: doubling U.S. aid. It would have required a commitment of about $15 billion per year, roughly the amount paid out in the federal airline bailout of 2002.

Bush’s response — astonishing in its heartlessness — was that the aid plan is “outside our budgetary process.”

Blair’s role in the process is unusual. In January he became chairman of the G-8 group of industrialized nations. He announced at the time that he intended to make African poverty and global warming his top priorities during his year in the post. Both issues, he made clear, are urgent crises for which solutions exist that have nearly universal world support. In both cases, Bush administration policies are blocking progress. Blair pledged to use his personal influence in Washington, the fruit of his loyalty to Bush in the Iraq and terrorism wars, to win a change of heart. He promised to secure results by the time of the G-8 summit that he is to chair in Scotland in July. His trip to Washington this week was intended to nail down some agreement.

“In a situation where literally thousands of children die from preventable diseases every day,” Blair said, “it’s our duty to act, and we will.”

What he got was $1 billion in debt relief.

Returning to London at midweek, the British leader tried to put on a brave face. “We have begun a discussion which I hope will end up with a plan for action at the G-8 summit,” he told Parliament on Wednesday.

His words, however, suggest that for all his famed optimism, Blair is beginning to share the sense of despair that so many leaders express in private discussions these days when they talk about the Bush administration and the fate of the world. “The brutal truth is,” he told Parliament, “without America in a process of dialogue and action in the international community, we are not going to make progress on it.”

But we must make progress. Africa’s poverty is the moral challenge of our era — and, it increasingly appears, the moral stain. In its deadliness, its moral clarity, the accessibility of its solutions, it dwarfs every other item on our agenda. We chatter about terrorism, globalization and intellectual property rights, while a continent dies before our eyes.

This time, we cannot blame the world. The solutions are in place, waiting for the superpower to sign on. For $15 billion a year, or about 15 cents a day per American citizen, the recovery could begin.

Americans are willing. Our government needs to know that.

We might start by mailing, each of us, a nickel and a dime to the White House, with a note telling our president to stop nickel-and-diming the world’s future.

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Nickels and Dimes

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