WASHINGTON – Simon Pierre,a government official from the country of Benin,tells a story to illustrate why economic progress is slow in Africa:
Ten-year-old Ayo,a fictional girl who represents many,chats animatedly with her friends as they happily scurry along. It's a Tuesday morning,and its school season,but they are not headed to school. These young girls of the Yoruba tribe are doing their daily morning chore – fetching water. It's s six-mile round trip and takes hours.
This situation is not unique to the West African country. It is duplicated all over the continent,where many young girls and boys are not able to go to school and most of the population lives below the poverty line.
“To escape poverty,the poor need access to employment,access to markets,access to local,regional,and international trade,access to schools and access to health clinics,” said John J. Danilovich,chief executive officer for the Millennium Challenge Corp.,a U.S. government organization that gives grants for projects to poor countries. Infrastructure gives them such access,and that's why investing in infrastructure directly benefits the poor.”
Danilovich added that better infrastructure improves access to health care and education and frees up time spent carrying water or firewood.
He was speaking at the 2007 U.S-Africa Infrastructure Conference held here this week,sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa,a nonprofit organization that promotes commercial relations between the United States and Africa.
The conference brought together more than 350 participants from the U.S and Africa to discuss opportunities,constraints and possible solutions to the problems in Africa.
Evident from the panel discussions was that infrastructure,or the lack of it,is the main hindrance to the development of the continent. With most countries lacking good road networks and lacking access to clean water,the issues of poor health care,poverty and high levels of illiteracy arise.
“The days of Western countries going in to provide services in Africa and taking away the money they make is over,” said Herber J. Lanese president of DynCorp International,a company that manages international projects. “We have to start giving back to the Africans.”
Lanese urged investors to look beyond making a profit. “It's one thing to be profitable. It's much more important to build trust,commitment and to be able to impart knowledge,” he said.
Pierre was excited to be at the conference. He was there with his colleagues who could not understand English and had to have a translator.
“We are here to try and get people to know more about Benin. So many times,we hear about Ghana,Nigeria and South Africa,and so little is known about the French-speaking countries of Africa,” he said.
He said that the Francophone countries have to put in more effort to learn English to keep from lagging behind.
“The English-speaking countries in Africa make a lot of economic progress because they have access to a lot of information. Even in this conference,everything is in English,all the materials and speeches,” Pierre said.
He added that the Millennium Challenge Corp. had done a lot for the Benin people,especially with the improvement of the port of Cotonou.
Barry Smith,a systems engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration,said the U.S. has a chance to give back to Africa,”I think this is a great idea. We have an excellent opportunity to share with Africa – now is our time to give.”
The Millennium Challenge Corp. partners with African countries that are committed to good governance and that invest in health and education of their people. In addition to Benin,countries that have benefited from this include Cape Verde,Ghana and Tanzania
The corporation is also working to ensure that countries can sustain projects once the grant money has been spent.