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Germany Reaches Out to Africa

Jabeen BhattiNovember 3, 2005

German president Horst Köhler and other German officials meet with African leaders, writers and NGOs later this week in Bonn to refocus attention on helping some of the world’s poorest people.

Trying to help more effectivelyImage: AP

It isn't an appeal for more development aid. It isn't about tightening border controls or reducing export duties or even debt forgiveness.

The meetings in Bonn, scheduled for Nov. 5 and 6, aim to do something more basic: focus attention on the need to strengthen relations between Africa and wealthier nations, namely Germany and other members of the European Union, through the "Partnership for Africa" initiative.

"In the North-South dialogue both sides are still far too prone to talk not with but past each other and that, I believe, is one of the reasons why progress here has been so halting and slow," German President Horst Köhler, a former director of the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, told the German weekly Die Zeit.

"If self-sustained development in Africa does not take off the results in terms of migration, disease and environmental problems will catch up with us -- whether we like it or not."

Weihe der Frauenkirche in Dresden
Köhler wants to improve tiesImage: dpa

Köhler will be joined by South African Presdient Thabo Mbeki, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, and other African and German development officials, parliamentarians and entrepreneurs. Topping the agenda is how to increase political, economic and social contact between the continents and listening to each other.

"The point of the whole exercise is not to reaffirm what we think we know, for good or ill," Köhler said. "What I am hoping for is to bring together a core of people keen to work with me on these issues over the next few years. I hope this will be an exercise in building trust."

Building cooperation

The statistics are grim: in Sierra Leone, three out of 10 children die before the age of five. In Niger, only 17 percent of the population can read. In Mali, half of all children under the age of 14 work. And the average Ethiopian does not have access to clean water and lives on about 70 euros ($84) a year.

In the past decade, development aid, debt relief, and economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa have risen but "reducing poverty remains a challenge," according to the World Bank's annual report on Africa. But despite progress, the rapid spread of HIV, insufficient aid and investment flows, weak commodity prices and a lack of trade opportunities could reverse gains.

As a result, the international development community has dubbed 2005 the "Year of Africa" to call attention to the continent’s needs. They say that with the increased focus on Africa's problems at the G8 summit in July, the UN summit in September on the so-called "millennium goals" and the WTO meeting in December, Africa could have a reach chance to get back on track.

Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Hilfsorganisation
South African President Thabo Mbeki is one of the African leaders coming to GermanyImage: AP

But many, including leading German officials, say that just pouring more funds into the continent won’t be effective. That is essentially why German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder earlier this year opposed an African "Marshall Plan" proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to double financial assistance to Africa to total around 40 billion euros.

Instead, through the Partnership for Africa Köhler and others want to promote a dialogue, brainstorm new ideas, but most of all, figure out what kind of development assistance Africans really want and what will be most effective.

"We don't know the answers," said Michael Göring, head of the Hamburg-based ZEIT Foundation, a partner in the initiative. "What we always hear is how Africa is the lost continent. But what we want to learn is about the success stories, the successful enterprises and ideas -- then help multiply them if we can."

A renaissance

Over the past few years, there has been a sort of a renaissance in regards to the attention Africa has received, according to Africa expert Denis Tull of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Chancellor Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer have visited the region, and there has been more debate in foreign policy circles.

At the EU level, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and African Union President Alpha Oumar Konare announced a new strategic partnership between Africa and Europe earlier this month to increase cooperation on development aid. At the same time, the EU has drafted an Africa strategy to increase and better coordinate relations between the two, which is expected to be adopted later this year.

But what can the German and EU initiatives accomplish concretely? Some doubt anything at all. Most are not sure.

"We have to wait and see," said Tull. "There has always been a lot of talk about partnerships, but to make a difference they need to be linked to practical policies. Still, at the very least, Africa, which is fairly neglected in German politics, is now on the agenda."