Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Looks at Africa's Problems

VATICAN CITY — In purely economic terms, Africa is frequently headlined in the press as the “hopeless continent.”

But as participants at a recent Vatican conference were quick to note, in Christian terms such “hopelessness” is a call to action, not despair.

Statistically, one can see why Africa is viewed so gloomily. According to figures from the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations, 70% of its population survives on less than $2 a day; poverty has increased 43% in the last 10 years and, to top it all, Africa faces a crippling debt of $300 billion.

“In terms of economic growth, Africa's actually going backward,” said Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society in London. “For a few, the standard of living has improved, but if you're at the bottom of the pile, you're even worse off, the poorest of the poor, squeezed out and left behind.”

Cardinal Christian Tumi, archbishop of Douala in Cameroon, also sees a bleak picture.

“On the economic level, I don't see any change in the life of the people,” he told the Register. “Many can't take their children to primary school, others don't have the means to go to the hospital.”

Such is the economic plight facing so many people in Africa that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace decided to host a symposium on May 21 titled “The Social and Economic Development of Africa in the Era of Globalization.”

The meeting drew on the expertise of scholars, representatives from the Church, Catholic nongovernmental organizations, and African and non-African ambassadors to the Holy See.

In his concluding remarks, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the pontifical council, announced the publication of a document on poverty in the era of globalization and the formation of a permanent study group to reflect upon what more could be done on the continent.

Debates at the symposium centered on how Africa could better participate in globalization and how, through trade reforms, it might actually benefit.

Msgr. Frank Dewane, under-secretary of the pontifical council, underlined the “devastating” impact of some U.S. and European Union trade practices.

“If subsidies are so high for cotton in some of the developed countries that the farmer growing cotton in Africa simply can't compete,” he said, then “economic growth is retarded.”

Dowden agreed, arguing that “we need to be just toward Africa — we need a level playing field in terms of trade.”

The United States, he said, “pays more in cotton subsidies than it does in aid to Africa. We need to give Africa the means with which it can serve its own living.”

But for fairer trade practices to work, there must, according to Dowden, be necessary protection and support to build Africa's economies. The continent is not ready at the moment, he said, because “it's been knocked back so far.”

Msgr. Dewane is of a similar mind: “The Holy Father often uses an image of the human family, and in every family, what the structure does is work to protect the weak members,” he said.

“What our human family has to do today,” Msgr. Dewane added, “is look at Africa and provide the protection it may need so that it can kick-start, so that it can jump.”


But there are many obstacles to ensuring economic growth is given a freer run. Civil wars and tribal disputes continue to rage in many parts of Africa.

“There's a lot of bloodshed going on,” Msgr. Dewane said, creating an atmosphere where investment and growth is “retarded.”

HIV/AIDS is another factor, with some areas of high infection set to lose up to 40% of their young population.

Furthermore, each year African governments pay out more in debt to creditors than they receive in development assistance or new loans, draining resources that could be spent on poverty reduction and basic social services.

It is a “tremendous burden,” Msgr. Dewane said. And despite some relief granted around the Jubilee Year, “not a whole lot has been realized“ in the area of debt reduction, he noted.

Another issue discussed was that of corruption and the need for good governance. Msgr. Dewane stressed that improvement here was not simply a question of reforming African structures and systems; it is also about tackling outsiders who encourage such corruption.

A bribe, he pointed out, involves two people. “There is somebody paying it,” he said, “and they're usually from the developed world.”

Even so, Africa still has a pressing need for governmental reform. If sub-Saharan Africa is “in a mess,” Tanzania's founding president Julius Nyerere once said, it is a mess made by its leaders.

And although there are glimmers of hope in the form of democratically elected governments, Africa is continually constrained by dictatorships and the system that put them there.

“Our fundamental problem is political,” Cardinal Tumi said in agreement. “Those who are in power do everything possible, good or bad, to remain in power,” and that often includes “changing their constitution” to suit their needs.

“I get the impression we are dealing with regimes that simply do not care and, if you are dealing with administrations that do not care,” Cardinal Tumi said, “well then nothing can be achieved.”


Yet despite the bleak picture, progress has been made. Botswana, for example, is leading the way, eliminating widespread corruption and boasting economic growth to rival western nations.

But analysts agree that the future of the continent primarily rests with the resilient and positive Africans themselves.

“I am surely optimistic about the future,” Cardinal Tumi said. “Every situation can change, but much depends on man. Man can do and undo.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.