President Bush announced a $1.7 billion aid package for Africa devoted primarily to combating malaria, unveiling the initiatives yesterday in advance of an international summit next week dedicated to breaking the continent's perpetual cycle of poverty, disease and famine.
Calling on the world to move beyond "empty symbolism and discredited policies," Bush pledged that the United States will join other rich nations to help the poorest -- a rhetorical and financial commitment that surprised some advocacy groups, which had complained in recent weeks that he was not doing enough.
The bulk of the aid announced yesterday, $1.2 billion, is aimed at fighting malaria, with a target of cutting in half the death toll of a disease that annually kills more than 1 million Africans, hitting children hardest. Bush also repeated his vow to double total assistance to Africa by 2010.
"We seek progress in Africa and throughout the developing world because conscience demands it," Bush said in a speech previewing the summit in Scotland of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations. "Americans believe that human rights and the worth of human lives are not determined by race or nationality, or determined by distance. We believe that every life matters and every person counts."
The president's announcement, coupled with previous commitments of new food aid and debt elimination for African nations, will enable him to head to Scotland saying that he is stepping forward to help, even though he will not meet the far more ambitious goals set by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his friend and summit host. Bush's speech and initiatives drew praise from advocates who have not always embraced him, including rock singer Bono, perhaps the world's most prominent celebrity to promote aid.
At the same time, however, some analysts and advocates said the president's lofty language was not fully supported by his numbers, which they said were reached in part by repackaging previous pledges. Some pointed out that even Bush's fresh dedication to combating malaria contrasted with his own cuts to U.S. infectious-disease programs just a few months ago.
"This was a good-news, bad-news speech today," said Susan E. Rice, who was assistant secretary of state for Africa under President Bill Clinton. Bush's address "touched on all the right levers for enhancing development," said Rice, who was a top foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004. "The bad news is when you look at the numbers . . . it's a whole lot of smoke and mirrors, and it's frankly misrepresenting where we are and misleading about where we're going."
David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, was more supportive, calling Bush's move a powerful boost to a summit that could bring historic change to Africa. The Scotland gathering promises to be "an extraordinary convergence, and so it's important that President Bush provides leadership at this moment because this time isn't going to come again," Beckmann said in an interview. "From what he said this morning, I wouldn't say this is great leadership, but it is a real partnership in the global effort to reduce poverty in Africa."
Blair has devoted the G-8 summit to forging a lasting accord to transform Africa, and he has traveled from capital to capital seeking support for a plan that would double annual international aid to $50 billion by 2010 and triple it by 2015. He wants the world's donor nations to commit to spending 0.7 percent of their gross national products on development assistance and has won an agreement to cancel $40 billion in debt owed by poor nations.
While Bush went along with the debt elimination plan, he has refused to meet Blair's broader aid target, with the United States spending less than 0.2 percent of its gross national product on foreign development aid. Bush has argued that his administration has already moved aggressively to help Africa fight famine, AIDS and other problems.
When Blair visited Washington last month, Bush announced $674 million in food aid. In yesterday's speech, he announced three initiatives -- $1.2 billion over five years to fight malaria, $400 million over four years to improve education, and $55 million for programs to combat sexual abuse and violence against women.
The centerpiece malaria proposal -- which requires congressional approval -- would tackle a disease that ravages the continent, despite being preventable and treatable if addressed promptly. The program would provide indoor spraying, long-lasting insecticide-treated nets and new combination drugs for treatment, Bush said, starting in Tanzania, Uganda and Angola and eventually including at least 15 other countries.
The World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation all hailed Bush's program, with UNICEF calling it "a great step forward for child health and survival." At the same time, the Global AIDS Alliance, another advocacy group, noted that in the short term, the malaria money would merely replenish funding Bush cut in the current year's budget.
According to the group, the budget Bush submitted to Congress earlier this year cut spending for infectious diseases by $45 million. The malaria program Bush announced yesterday would earmark $30 million more for next year, less than the original cut, before ramping up to $500 million in 2010.
Advocates say the United States has not fully funded its new Millennium Challenge aid program or AIDS prevention in Africa, and they took issue with Bush's claim to have already tripled aid to Africa during his presidency and his promise to double it again by 2010. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the Bush administration now spends $4.3 billion a year on Africa and would increase that to $8.6 billion in five years.
Others said the dollar debate should not obscure the importance of Bush's interest in helping Africa. "We'll fight about the numbers, because of the need for even more children in school, even more malaria protection, but there's no denying the commitment here," Bono said in a statement. "This was a great speech by a man who means to understand the challenges in Africa and America's opportunity to help solve them as partners."
Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.