We can draw comfort from the fact that marginalised Africa is, at last, at centre stage: Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, attended the African Union summit in Tripoli yesterday, and the Group of Eight summit this week features Africa prominently on the agenda. But why is this important? And what should be done to turn our enhanced sense of urgency into action?
The excellent report of the Commission on Africa is titled "Our Common Interest". Perhaps this is why we should aid Africa. Princeton Lyman, a former US Ambassador to Nigeria, recently argued that there is "a growing recognition that you just can't leave an entire continent behind . . . without a lot of problems that come back to harm us". But these "enlightened self-interest" arguments for extending a hand to Africa are a bit of a stretch. They are similar to tenuous arguments used since the 1960s to sell the idea of aid to the electorates of rich countries - that communism would spread unless poverty were reduced. Today communism has been replaced by terrorism.
When we look at Africa today, it is simply our common humanity that we must affirm. Africa, unique among continents in the postwar period, has not progressed but gone backwards in many ways. It contains 32 of the world's 48 poorest countries. It has the lowest primary school completion rates of any continent today while life expectancy has declined from 50 to 46 years since 1990. Since the 1980s, per capita income has fallen by 13 per cent and the number of people estimated to be living in "extreme poverty" has doubled. Compounding these tragic numbers are the images that incessantly flash across our screens: of slaughter in Darfur, the genocide in Rwanda, the civil wars in Ethiopia, Angola and Liberia, the collapse of governance and human rights in Zimbabwe, and the masses of malnourished and hapless refugees in camps.
Writing in 1760, Adam Smith observed that a "man of humanity" in Europe, while losing sleep over the loss of his little finger, would "snore with the most profound security" through the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren in China since he had not seen them. Today, this is impossible for he cannot avoid seeing the famine, the plague and the poverty. As we witnessed with the outpouring of public and private money for tsunami relief, the men and women - indeed, their children - have pushed governments and civil society organisations into asserting their common humanity in Africa.
But when we get down to the task of assisting Africa, the very afflictions that compel us to help are likely also to produce the pessimistic belief that nothing can be done to produce any real results. We must transcend that despair by reminding ourselves of the ways Africa has changed for the better.
One way is the manner in which Africans manage their own affairs. Perhaps the greatest change in governance has come in the shape of the African Union. African governments have established the African Peer Review Mechanism, signed by 23 countries and with three more in the queue, that provides for periodic and impartial reviews of governance in the member countries.
Many signatories are already under review. This transparency can help bring corruption into the light, thereby eradicating it. The AU has also created the Peace and Security Council aimed at the prevention, management and resolution of conflicts in the continent. The AU is also moving to double the number of its troops in Darfur to 7,000. In short, the problems of bad governance and raging conflicts are beginning to be addressed, replacing decades of neglect and despair. Civil society has also grown in many countries; Wangari Maathai's Nobel Peace Prize last year for her environmental work was possibly a recognition of this important development.
But effort is still needed on many fronts. This does not mean that nothing can be done unless everything else is in place. Lots of things can be done that all add up. Yet, a focus on a few strategic areas is necessary. Five are critical. First, debt relief for the very poor nations makes sense. It should be extended regardless of bad governance. Would you collect a pound of flesh from a dictator if the flesh is actually going to come from his emaciated and oppressed subjects?
Second, new aid must be used productively. Aid spent in Africa can be increased beyond its current levels in countries with good governance but a graduated - rather than substantially accelerated - increase to double current aid flows is prudent. This aid should be increased according to carefully devised projects and programmes.
Third, aid to Africa must stand firmly on two legs - the aid spent in Africa and that directed towards Africa but not spent there. Spending aid funds productively poses fewer problems in the latter case. Several programmes can be thought of immediately. Given Africa's dire shortage of skilled labour, which handicaps all kinds of developmental efforts, a Grey Peace Corps has been suggested. This would enlist retired volunteers from a range of professions to work in Africa in the manner of the Peace Corps.
Very large sums of money could be spent on developing new vaccines and cures for diseases particularly afflicting Africa.
Fourth, African nations need to reduce their own trade barriers while seeking the removal of the subsidies and tariffs of rich countries in products where they have demonstrated export advantage: cotton and sugar being principal examples. A country's own trade barriers discourage the development of its export industry; markets opened by the rich countries may then not be taken advantage of.
Finally, programmes to make the private sector the backbone of development are necessary. They include micro-credit institutions which enable the poor to borrow without collateral. But more might be accomplished through establishing clear property rights that would turn the assets of the poor, often tenuous in their legal title, into effective collateral.
Growing political will, favourable institutional changes and thoughtful policy prescriptions are changing the landscape for Africa's future. Despair must yield to hope and hope must lead to action.
Jagdish Bhagwati is university professor, economics and law, at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ibrahim Gambari is under-secretary-general at the UN and special adviser for Africa