For leaders of the eight industrial nations meeting in Alberta, Canada, Africa is high on the agenda. The reason for this is the African-led New Partnership for Africa's Development, or Nepad, which aims to reduce poverty by pledging good governance and economic integration in return for aid, debt relief and market access.
This initiative is note-worthy for its explicit recognition by African leaders of the importance of political and economic reforms - and therefore deserves thoughtful consideration. However, the record of reform in Africa requires that any international commitment to Nepad scrupulously separates rhetoric from reality.
Political reforms that increase checks and balances on public authority are central to any initiative capable of reducing poverty in Africa. Over the past 20 years, democracies in Africa have consistently made more rapid gains in their development than non-democracies. Average income growth per capita in democracies has been nearly 2 per cent a year compared with 0.44 per cent for non-democracies. Infant mortality rates in African democracies have been nearly half the regional average of 99 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. Similarly, cereal production in democracies has been 20 per cent higher than the average in the mainly rural continent.
Africa is more democratic today than it was a decade ago. However, these gains remain fragile. For many countries, there is considerable debate over whether these changes represent genuine reform or are simply window-dressing to satisfy the minimum standards of international legitimacy. The muted response of African leaders to Robert Mugabe's dismantling of democratic institutions - culminating in his rigging of elections in March - re- inforces the sceptical view. Zimbabwe's subsequent selection as an African representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission further compromises the case for taking African commitments to democracy seriously.
The deference given to Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan leader, is another example. Now in his 16th year of rule, Mr Museveni is frequently feted as a star reformer thanks to Uganda's recent rapid economic growth. However, corruption in Uganda is on the rise and fledgling democratic checks and balances are being cast aside. There can be no clearer illustration of this than last year's manipulated elections. As a result, the likelihood of Mr Museveni's becoming tomorrow's Mr Mugabe (who oversaw rapid economic growth a decade ago), rather than the father of Ugandan democracy, appears to grow greater by the day.
The G8 countries can best advance economic growth and alleviate poverty in Africa by promoting democracy. This requires sending clear signals that only genuine and consistent reform will be recognised. Given the many flawed elections held across the continent, voting is an insufficient measure of democratic progress. The breadth of free press, judicial independence and access to credit by the private sector are more accurate indicators of a genuine commitment to political reform. As Africa remains a region in which political power and economic opportunity are too often almost synonymous, only progress on these institutional factors - rather than commitments made by individual leaders - will lead to sustained economic development and poverty alleviation.
A telling example of how much good governance matters is the unfolding story between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Not long ago, Zimbabwe supplied maize from its surplus to war-torn Mozambique. This year, a more democratic Mozambique is exporting food commodities to its increasingly autocratic and famine-threatened neighbour.
All this is not to say the G8 should reject Nepad. Rather, it should be more rigorous in its approach. Reward only the genuine reformers: Senegal, Ghana, Botswana, Mauritius, Benin, Mali and Mozambique. That would lead to tangible developmental results and create clear incentives for reform. Donors have had great difficulty in showing discipline in past development initiatives. Responsibility for change should rely on them as much as on African governments.
In the fervent quest for a solution and in the desire to be seen as doing something to tackle the widespread privation in Africa, western governments should not soften standards that would make African governments more accountable to their citizens. Support for Nepad should ensure the horse stays in front of the cart. Let African governments first demonstrate - rather than simply state - their commitment to reforms, then incrementally follow this up with increased aid, debt relief, investment and access to markets.
Such an iterative process, with African governments taking the lead, is the surest way to tackle the continent's wrenching poverty, the eradication of which is in everyone's interest.
Joseph Siegle is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.