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The commitment of African finance ministers to continental integration, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the declarations of their own heads of state has come into question after national delegations from South Africa, Rwanda and Egypt succeeded in deleting any reference to budgetary targets for education, health, agriculture and water in the report and resolutions of the annual meeting of the African Union and Economic Commission for the Africa Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, which took place in Malawi at the end of March. Geoffrey Njora explores the possible consequences of their actions.

After two heated debates during the recent African ministers of finance meeting in Malawi, national delegations from South Africa, Rwanda and Egypt succeeded in deleting any reference to budgetary targets for education, health, agriculture and water in the Common Position on MDGs and the conference report and resolutions. Their action brings into question the extent to which African finance ministers are committed to continental integration, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the declarations and resolutions of their own heads of state.

The budgetary targets are embedded in a set of important declarations and decisions adopted by Africa’s 53 Presidents as far back as 2000. The declarations and decisions include the Dakar Framework for Action-Education For All: Meeting Our Collective Commitments (2000), the Abuja Declaration on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Other Related Infectious Diseases (2001), the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security (2003) and Sirte Declaration on Agriculture and Water (2008). Among other strategies, these declarations and decisions commit governments to devote up to 20 per cent of their budgets to education, 15 per cent to health, 10 per cent to agriculture and 0.5 per cent to water and sanitation.

The delegations were attending the 3rd Joint Annual Meeting of the African Union and Economic Commission for Africa Conference of Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development in Lilongwe, Malawi, held from 29-30 March. The ministers had met to address progress towards the MDGs and in particular, realising food security and employment among other issues.

2010 is a critical year for these issues. In September, African presidents will join their counterparts to report against the Millennium Development Goals in the UN General Assembly. African governments will challenge the G20 to follow up G8 promises on doubling aid to Africa and global trade reform in June, as well as push for the delivery of US$30 billion promised for national adaptation and mitigation efforts in Copenhagen last year. In this context, the positions taken by the finance ministers completely undermine African governments attempts to hold their development partners accountable for the promises reached.

In the heated debates, Cecil Noel, South Africa’s chief finance director set the tone for the debate that followed, stating, ‘These targets do not make any sense. I shall be asking my head of state to propose a review of these targets in the AU Summit in Kampala in July.’ He proceeded, supported by Egypt’s deputy minister Hany Dimian to argue, ‘The heads of states have made a colossal mistake. These targets straightjacket the process of budgeting in our countries.’ Rwanda’s finance minister John Rwangombwa concurred and was swiftly followed by Zimbabwe and Egypt’s call for the targets to be abandoned. Mozambique’s vice finance minister Pedro Couto called for any reference to a 10 per cent budgetary target for agricultural investment to be struck from the resolutions. Ironically, the declaration is known as the Maputo Declaration. Agriculture ministers adopted it in a meeting chaired by Mozambique in 2003 in Maputo.

Delegations from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi and Cote D’Ivoire argued for their retention in the drafts prepared by the AU Commission and Economic Commission for Africa. Addis-based ambassador Nkoyo Toyo warned against delegations dismissing decisions. She referred to their historical importance as standing commitments and cited a number of countries that have raised their budgetary allocations. The Nigerian head of delegation further noted, ‘I worry about the precedence we are setting where we make commitments and drop them when it is expedient.’ Kenya’s national planning permanent secretary Edward Sambili reminded the delegations that the targets are aspirational in nature. He further pointed to the 38 per cent that Kenya currently allocates to the four sectors as evidence that it is possible to reach these targets.

Attempts by the meeting’s Malawian chairperson Hon Ken Kandodo and AUC chairperson Jean Ping to remind the finance ministers that the ministers did not have the power to change these presidential commitments fell on deaf ears. Accordingly, without the consensus needed, the references to the budgetary targets were struck first from the resolutions, then the Common Position on the MDGs and finally the report of the ministers conference.

There are many consequences that could flow from this. Firstly, this could indicate an abandonment of the bold financing that has gone into reversing vulnerability to food insecurity, disease and denial of access to education. According to NGO The African Monitor, it is these targets that have inspired the improvements in small-scale farming, primary education enrolment rates and falling HIV/AIDS infection rates. In 2009, they noted that despite this progress, 44 countries continue to import 25 per cent of their food needs, and that retention of girls in education and the overall quality of education is still weak. Huge inequities exist between urban and rural, rich and poor and most people living positively with HIV/AIDS do not have access to life saving medicines.

Secondly, how will Africa now have the integrity to hold the G8 and international community to the commitments that they have made to contribute 0.7 per cent of their gross national product and double development assistance to Africa? Should presidents backtrack on these commitments in Kampala, will African Union president Bingu wa Mutharika be able to stand before the G20 in June and the UN General Assembly in September and remind the international community of their obligations? I think not.

Thirdly, the dismissive nature with which the finance ministers have treated these targets begs the question of whether the Millennium Development Goals and all the other decisions taken under the auspices of the African Union will go the same way. This path would further damage the credibility of Africa’s leaders in the eyes of those African citizens who feel their leaders lack political will, are unaccountable and completely self-interested. For these citizens, it is one more reason to dismiss Africa’s leadership.

Lest you the reader be one of them, consider that behind these declarations and decisions are a number of research consultancies, numerous meetings of African ministers of education, agriculture, water and sanitation and health, at least five summits of Addis-based ambassadors, ministers of foreign affairs and heads of states and their delegations. At a conservative figure, this could have run into US$10 million over the last ten years. Got your attention? I think so.


* Geoffrey Njora is a pan-African analyst who attended the meeting of the finance ministers.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.