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Rich nations urged to aid Africa's poor

UN goal addressed at economic forum

DAVOS, Switzerland -- Former President Bill Clinton yesterday questioned the Bush administration's $80 billion request to finance the war in Iraq when ''a pittance" of that amount would allow the United States to double its aid and help end massive poverty in Africa.

Others at the World Economic Forum, including Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, joined Clinton in urging rich countries to reach deeper into their pockets.

''You want to go save 4 million lives?" Clinton said. ''Give them the medicine. It's not rocket science, and it's so cheap compared to everything else all these rich countries do.

''Anybody who says we shouldn't do this because there's corruption and incompetence should be put in a closet. I mean, this is ridiculous."

Meeting the United Nations goal of cutting global poverty in half by 2015 was a top issue, although Middle East peace, bioterrorism, and oil prices shared the spotlight yesterday at the World Economic Forum's annual gathering of top business executives, politicians, and social leaders.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres of Israel said the recent Palestinian effort to move toward peace ''exceeds our expectations," and he expected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to meet the new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in ''days, not weeks."

''I think we can move faster than we thought earlier -- faster and better if nothing wrong will occur," Peres said in Davos, a ski resort in the Swiss Alps.

The panel attracting the biggest audience yesterday featured Clinton, Blair, Gates, the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria, and U2 rock singer Bono discussing whether the seven wealthiest nations and Russia -- the Group of Eight -- will take action to end poverty in Africa.

A report to the UN this month concluded that poverty can be cut in half by 2015 and eliminated by 2025 if the world's richest countries, including the United States, Japan, and Germany, more than double aid to the poorest countries.

At stake is life or death for tens of millions of people, it said.

''We need this critical mass of resources to make a change, to make a difference," President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria said.

Blair, who is making Africa a focus of his leadership of the G-8 this year, said the continent's plight is ''a scar on the conscience of the world." He reiterated his call for an African Commission to analyze what is wrong and prescribe how ''to put it right."

''The absolutely key thing is to agree that the end objective is a very substantial uplift in aid," he said.

Gates, who has amassed an estimated $48 billion as founder of Microsoft, said millions of children in Africa could be saved if there were enough resources.

''The fact that we don't apply the resources to the known cures or to finding better cures is really . . . the most scandalous issue of our time," he said.

Gates, who has been one of the largest contributors to alleviating global poverty, recently pledged $750 million to support immunization programs in developing countries.

Bono made a pledge, too.

''People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves," he said. ''What else are we going to be remembered for, our generation? . . . We will be remembered for three things right now: the Internet, the war against terror, and what we did or didn't do about this glorious continent of Africa and its travails.

''I think we can be the generation that ends extreme poverty -- I really do -- and I think I will spend the rest of my life pledged to that commitment."

Clinton said American voters would never punish a politician for embracing the fight against poverty and disease in Africa, and questioned the Bush administration's commitment to the issue.

''Let's get real," he said. ''The president just asked for $80 billion for the Iraq war for a year. For a pittance of that, we could double America's international assistance in all these areas. This is cheap."

Fluctuating oil prices remained a prime topic at the panel discussions, with analysts warning that China's voracious economic expansion is demanding more capacity. But questions on whether the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries would tighten its oil supply remained ahead of a key meeting Sunday in Vienna. Sheik Ahmad Fahd al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Kuwait's oil minister and the OPEC president, said the group would consider returning some oil it removed from the market in December, if needed.

US Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, called bioterrorism ''the greatest threat" facing the world and warned that the United States and other countries are unprepared for an attack he predicted would come in the next decade. Frist is a physician whose Senate office received a letter last year containing the toxin ricin.

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