- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

KIGALI, Rwanda — A group of African nations yesterday kicked off a program to battle poverty by scrutinizing each other’s economic and social policies — a bid to win Western aid and private investment for the world’s poorest continent.

Known as “peer review,” the process is the centerpiece of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), a plan initiated by African leaders nearly two years ago that envisioned vigorous policing of their policies by other Africans.

“We are not doing this job for the fun of it,” said Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the current chairman of the 53-nation African Union. “We are doing it because we know it’s in our best interests.”

The proposal was a response to decades of misrule in post-colonial Africa, when African leaders tacitly agreed not to criticize each other or, notably, the massive corruption among ruling elites.

Yesterday, a panel of seven “eminent persons” began an eight-month examination of policies in Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and Mauritius, and African officials say they will not shy from attacking previously taboo issues.

“The panel will cover all areas, including corruption,” said Wiseman Nkuhlu, the chairman of the Nepad steering committee and an adviser to South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is regarded as one of the driving forces behind the initiative.

Apart from examining whether countries are democratic and cleanly governed, the reviewers will also look at economic management, corporate governance and socio-economic development, according to Nepad documents. The panel has no authority to impose penalties on laggard countries.

The effort coincides with a new approach to foreign aid by the Bush administration, which will tie American aid to similar issues.

Known as the Millennium Challenge Account, the U.S. effort calls for expanding foreign aid by $5 billion annually starting in 2006 — a 50 percent increase over the base foreign aid budget of $10 billion.

The program will favor countries whose governments are judged to be just, welcoming hosts for foreign investment and promoters of projects to meet their people’s basic health and education needs.

The African initiative announced yesterday will rely heavily on advice from international bodies like the U.N. Economic Council for Africa, the African Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“Peer review is the most essential thing for the credibility of Nepad,” said Ross Herbert, a researcher at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

The process will be voluntary, giving African Union countries that wish to dodge criticism a chance to avoid it.

However, 17 countries have signed up for reviews over the next two to three years.

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