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Africa the old-fashioned way

International | AIDS, famine, and war-and concern about radical Islam-prompt private humanitarians to step in where government charity fails

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2002," Dec. 7, 2002

IN FEBRUARY BRUCE WILKINSON plans to step to the mike at the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix to lay down a challenge to the largest pastors conference in U.S. history.

The author of the blockbuster bestseller, The Prayer of Jabez, has a modest proposal for at least 55,000 church leaders who are expected to attend the 2003 Promise Keepers event: Organize 100 church members to visit Africa for a one- to two-week missions trip. If one in five in the crowd takes up the challenge, Mr. Wilkinson believes he could change a continent.

In point of fact, Mr. Wilkinson did not become a household name with modest proposals. The creator of the Jabez phenomenon and founder of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries now believes he can leverage his celebrity status to mobilize 10,000 churches to send 1 million churchgoers to what many still regard as the Dark Continent. Within one- or two-week journeys, he believes, they will want to adopt the regions they visit and minister long-term to those in need.

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"More people die [of] AIDS in South Africa every day than all the people that died in the Twin Towers," he told WORLD. "When Americans see the suffering in Africa, they will not be able to keep themselves from helping."

Mr. Wilkinson is not the first to have a vision for Africa. In recent years the consumptive pace of Africa's AIDS crisis has prompted other high-profile humanitarians-from U2's Bono to Franklin Graham-to use their public platforms and their money to try to cure the continent.

Private giving by Americans actually trumps government aid overseas. In 2001 the U.S. government spent about $20 billion in foreign relief aid and development. Private donors-church-based groups, volunteer organizations, foundations, corporations, and universities-gave $35 billion. Most foreign aid, whatever the source, winds up in Africa.

The continent's needs aren't news. But the numbers never fail to stagger. More than half the people of sub-Saharan Africa survive on less than a dollar a day. Forty percent suffer from serious malnutrition and food shortages. In Somalia 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday. Southern Africa is in the throes of serious famine, with 12 million people at high risk of starvation. Another food crisis looms in Eritrea and Ethiopia. And that's not talking about AIDS.

Seventy percent of the world's AIDS deaths, or 20 million, have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 13 million children are orphans as a result. In some countries over 20 percent of the population is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, most of them in the 15-49 age group.

What's less noted about Africa is the good news. West African oil and gas now supply almost 15 percent of U.S. energy needs. That could rise to 25 percent by 2005. Discoveries of new reserves have the petroleum industry looking harder at Africa, particularly as uncertainty increases about Middle East suppliers.

Military planners are looking more to Africa to bolster their own security. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, visited Eritrea in March. Rumors float that he may soon select the Red Sea port of Assab as a new base of operations. More than 1,500 U.S. Marines are exercising in neighboring Djibouti, while 800 U.S. troops, including special forces, are based at Le Monier camp in Djibouti town as part of a task force for the Horn of Africa.

At the same time, the Bush administration is more concerned about Africa's own wars-both savage ethnic civil wars in places like Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, as well as Muslim-Christian conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria. Under the banner of war on terror, U.S. officials would like to halt the southward spread of radical Islam. "We've got to stop the wars," said Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner. "Africa will not develop if you have wars going, and we have got to assist in bringing some of those wars to closure."

Confessing Africa's strategic importance to the United States should mean also admitting that decades of government aid and intervention have not done enough to overcome widespread insecurity. Private entrepreneurs like Mr. Wilkinson are key. "Africa is not going to make it economically without international private sector involvement," he said.

Nonprofit groups have long known they could do good without government sponsorship. Whether it is the $24 billion Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or $200 gifts for cleft palate surgery, donors want their dollars to help the beleaguered, not a bureaucracy.

That is why well-endowed humanitarians like Mr. Wilkinson strike out on their own. The soft-spoken, silver-haired Bible teacher, at 55, says he saw suffering firsthand in Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa while financing production of a film, Beat the Drum, about a boy who loses his parents to AIDS. It convinced him that only Christians devoting themselves en masse to the starving and the sick-building new orphanages and supporting African churches-can succeed. It also convinced him to move there.

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