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Bono and O'Neill in Africa

One message should emerge clearly from the African tour of US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and rock star Bono: This is far from a hopeless continent. The improbable diplomatic duo has spotlighted hundreds of Africans who are vigorously trying to improve their lives and their countries.

The question is how to help these people, and millions of others, achieve their goals more effectively. To some extent, that question has been boiled down to the catchphrase "trade not aid."

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A chorus of African leaders, while acknowledging that aid remains important, are emphasizing expanded trade as the key to their continent's revival. For example, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who's hosting the last leg of the O'Neill–Bono trip, just made an impassioned plea for Western nations to drop the tariffs and subsidies that block many African products from their markets.

Mr. Zenawi has a good point. Western protectionism for food and textiles – Africa's staple exports – has been endemic. Witness the recently passed US farm bill. There has been some lowering of barriers, but much more could be done. The West should warmly welcome Africa's desire to help itself through trade.

It should also sustain and better target its aid to Africa. In this regard, the on-the-road dialogue between Messrs. O'Neill and Bono is instructive. Bono's fervent refrain is that big projects – like clean water for all Ugandans, or AIDS treatment for all South Africans who need it – take big dollars. O'Neill's response is that those needs would be a lot closer to being met if the dollars already flowing in were better used.

That debate touches on the prickly issue of how effectively African governments use the aid they receive. It's a mixed picture. Some countries, like Uganda and Ghana, are doing well in this regard. Others should be encouraged to follow their example.

Both trade and aid are needed. Those key ingredients, blended with Africans' own energy and talent, can expand hope and progress.