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Africa: Donors Pledge Billions In Aid For Sudan

International donors are congratulating themselves on their generosity, after exceeding their targets for aid to Sudan at a recent donors conference. Donors pledged some $4.5 billion to help the country recover from two decades of civil war. Now the challenge will be actually paying the money. With aid budgets tapped out by the recent Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, the danger is that needy Sudanese might not see the promised cash.

Prague, 13 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The pledges have been made, but will the donors keep their promises?

That's the "billion-dollar" question following this week's record-breaking donors conference for Sudan held in Norway's capital Oslo.

The international donors -- led by the United States -- pledged $4.5 billion over three years to help Sudan recover from more than two decades of civil war.

But if past experience is any guide, Sudan could see only a fraction of that in real cash.

That was the warning UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave to the donors on 11 April. Annan told them that if they don't honor their pledges, the risk is that the Sudanese conflict could resume.
"We meet because we know that overcoming the obstacles ahead in Sudan will require the full and sincere commitment of all the parties."

"Over the past three decades, no fewer than half of all post-conflict situations have reverted to war within five years of the signing of the peace agreement," Annan said. "We meet because we know that overcoming the obstacles ahead in Sudan will require the full and sincere commitment of all the parties."

Annan -- in an open letter published today in "The New York Times" -- compared the situation in Sudan to Cambodia in 1992. There, he said, donors pledged some $880 million to aid for rebuilding. Three years later, however, only about $460 million had actually been paid out.

Tim Allen, an aid expert at the London School of Economics who once lived in Sudan, said donors at aid conferences tend to get swept up in the moment and often make promises they cannot keep.

“That’s always the danger at these big donor conferences," Allen said. "There’s a tendency for people to use big words -- if it’s the ‘politically correct’ thing to do on a particular occasion. By and large, the actual amounts of money deployed are much less than the pledges.”

Recent history is filled with examples of donors failing to make good on their pledges. The most notorious might be following Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the islands of the Caribbean in the 1990s. Aid payments there fell short by billions of dollars.

The 2003 earthquake in Iranian city of Bam is another telling example. It's been some 16 months since the quake killed tens of thousands of people, and only about 20 percent of the promised aid money has been delivered.

The aid pledges apply to Sudan's 21-year civil war between the country's mainly black African south and its Muslim, Arab-speaking north. Some 2 million people are estimated to have died in the war -- and an additional 4 million people were displaced from their homes.

In January, the two sides reached a peace agreement, paving the way for the Oslo donors conference.

A separate conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur was not explicitly included at the conference. But the United States and other participants repeatedly warned that continued violence in Darfur could imperil all aid flows to Sudan.

The $4.5 billion in pledges nearly doubled expectations.

A UN-World Bank report had concluded Sudan would need about $2.6 billion in outside aid for humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. The total reconstruction bill has been put at around $8 billion -- but much of that is to be funded from Sudan's own oil revenues.

Another big question for aid experts is whether the Sudanese economy will be able to absorb such enormous injections of cash -- should the pledges come in as expected. The $4.5-billion figure is equal to 15 percent of the entire Sudanese economy.

Aid expert Allen said an underdeveloped economy like Sudan’s will likely not be able to cope with such large amounts of cash in the relatively short period of time foreseen by the donors.

“[The question is] can a country devastated by war, with almost no infrastructure in much of it outside of the Nile Valley around Khartoum and so on, how is it going to absorb that kind of money in three years? Well, it can’ simply can’t,” Allen said.

Aid experts said it doesn't matter how much aid money is pledged or paid if ultimately the local economy cannot produce the goods and services needed.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.