Head of the World Bank is optimistic about opportunities in Africa


PRETORIA, South Africa - Saying he sees "real opportunity" to make aid to Africa work, new World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz wrapped up an initial four-nation visit to the continent yesterday with talks with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has led a drive for better governance and greater investment across Africa.

"There's real opportunity here. The more I have traveled through Africa ... the more I have felt that sense of opportunity and what I could call a 'can-do' attitude," he told reporters after his meeting with Mbeki.

The weeklong trip by the former U.S. deputy secretary of defense took him through Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Rwanda before South Africa. The visit has been as much about winning African hearts - Wolfowitz is widely seen in Africa as an Iraqi war hawk - as educating the new World Bank head about the continent he has promised to make his top priority.

But Wolfowitz has won praise throughout the visit for his willingness to listen rather than dictate and for his plaudits for Africa's changing political landscape, which may now make aid to the continent more effective.

Questioned about the bank's history of questionable loans on the continent, many to former dictators who quickly appropriated the cash for themselves, leaving their countries deep in debt, Wolfowitz admitted that "obviously we're dealing with quite a bit of lending that probably shouldn't have been done at all."

He expressed strong support for a recent decision by the finance ministers of the Group of Eight leading developed countries to cancel the debts of 18 of the world's poorest and most indebted countries, 14 in Africa.

To help countries avoid falling so far into debt in the future, he said, the World Bank would focus on providing grants instead of loans to the poorest nations. But he said efforts to stem widespread corruption on the continent, particularly through Mbeki's New Partnership for Africa's Development initiative, would be equally crucial.

He said the bank also is moving back toward supporting large-scale infrastructure projects in Africa.

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