Leons Call: Building Bridges With Our Hands

By David J. O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO
ChevronTexaco Corporation

Leon H. Sullivan Summit

Abuja, Nigeria, July 16, 2003

It is an honor to be invited to address today's presidential plenary.

Your excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to add my greetings to you and particularly to President Obasanjo for being such a great host.

I can imagine Leon Sullivan, looking down on this great city of Abuja at the center of Africa's most diverse nation, saying, "This is exactly how I'd like to see it."

Mr. President, you are most gracious to host this summit. It shows your determination to address not only the many challenges and opportunities facing the people of Nigeria but those facing the entire continent.

This is the sixth Sullivan Summit, the first since Leon Sullivan's passing, and a special one for all of us.

My company was an early partner of Leon's, and as the largest private U.S. investor in sub-Saharan Africa, we share his deep concern for this continent and its people. For me, one phrase defined Leon's approach to improving the human condition: "Use what you have in your hands."

He advocated self-help, believing that poor people wanted a hand up, not a hand out. But he also wanted us to stretch our hands toward each other to build bridges of cooperation, which is exactly what we are doing here and have done at previous summits.

Using our own hands is always about partnership. Leon knew the only lasting change — sustainable change — was that won by coalition.

Africa was Leon's great passion. He would remind us of a Nigerian proverb: "Work is the medicine of poverty." Then he'd push us on toward greater collaboration, tighter communities and deeper commitments.

I believe it is poverty — and the meeting of basic human needs — that is the defining challenge of the 21st century. Today, there are still 1 billion people who are struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. In Africa, half of the population — that's 300 million people — is in this situation.

How do we together create an environment which will enable them to share in the benefits that social and economic progress has brought others? From moral, economic and security perspective, the challenge is huge and cannot be ignored.

We can see signs of hope.

  • Twenty of the 48 sub-Saharan African countries averaged growth rates above 5 percent during the past six years.
  • My company, with our partners, plans to spend $20 billion here during the next five years.
  • The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act has strengthened international ties and increased trade. Meanwhile, U.S. assistance to Africa has increased substantially, funding education, efforts to end hunger and, of course, addressing the critical issue of HIV/AIDS.

As significant as this progress has been, however, much remains to be done. "The mountains are high," said Leon Sullivan, "but they do not reach the stars."

Africa's stakeholders — its citizen groups, business and government leaders and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work here — must climb the mountain of hope together to address important human needs.

Chief among these needs is debt relief. Africa's staggering debt burden, much of it decades old, today sits over the continent like a dark cloud. Debt has become a harness, strapped to every African child at birth, which a lifetime of work cannot loosen or shed.

Despite periodic "reschedulings," the total owed has soared well past $200 billion. In 2002, 10 African governments spent more on debt repayments than on health care and education combined — this at the same time as 42 million school-age African children were without access to education.

If ever there was an area where we must work together, this is it. We must create the trust and partnerships that allow relief to move forward and will lift the cloud of debt.

It's true that in the past there have been missteps on both sides. The result is mutual distrust by borrowers and lenders alike. This cycle must be broken. Lasting debt relief must address bad lending practices as well as bad borrowing practices. And it must acknowledge that merely replacing old debt with new debt is no relief at all.

The upside potential is enormous. To give just one example: Tanzania used $3 billion in debt-relief under the World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Program to eliminate school fees and increase spending on education. Almost overnight, 1.6 million more children were attending elementary school.

Some contend that debt relief should be tied to a cluster of reform issues - most notably, transparency and good governance. Certainly, action in these areas can help repair the damaged trust that hinders debt relief. The fact is transparency is the confidence-builder that encourages Africa's businesses, NGOs and governments to reach toward each other.

As I look around this room, I sense a new will and spirit among Africa's leaders on these issues. This spirit is embodied in the New Partnership for African Development and its peer review process, which combine self-appraisal and transparency in a powerful new tool for building trust.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Blair's Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which ChevronTexaco supports, has been welcomed across the continent. African nations are advancing the cause of transparency and, I believe, are hastening the day of sustainable debt relief.

So, today, I say to those who hold Africa's debt: The time has come to recognize and respond positively to these bold signals of commitment.

Ultimately, of course, progress depends on all of us.

  • First, African governments must do the things only they can do: advocate and practice good governance, meet basic human needs and create a favorable investment climate.

    International governments must help confront some of Africa's and the world's most pressing problems, and they must help in the hard work of human and institutional capacity-building.

  • Second, NGOs and community-based organizations must build their own local capacity, and they must be open to working with all stakeholders. I was disheartened, when my company sought NGO partners for sustainable development projects in Africa, to hear that at least two major NGOs would not partner with us or anyone in our industry for fear of losing members — this, despite acknowledging the value of our projects.

    Who loses because of such attitudes? I contend that it is the very people we all are trying to help and the very problems we are trying to solve.

  • Third, for our part, business must forge new partnerships, especially public-private partnerships. We must work with governments, NGOs and communities to ensure that the greatest possible economic and social benefits flow from our activities. We must make positive contributions to people's lives.

My company recently launched — with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) and others — the Angola Partnership Initiative, which will invest up to $50 million not only where ChevronTexaco operates but across Angola. Our first project to improve the productivity of small farms will touch the lives of more than 600,000 people.

Another project will create microloans for small businesses, including women-owned firms. And let me add this: Any attempt to unlock Africa's human capital must begin with the empowerment of women.

Partnership by governments, NGOs, community groups and business is vital to success.

All of us here today share Leon Sullivan's belief that Africa truly is "a continent of possibilities."

Even now, Leon speaks to us. He voices the same message he gave us at the very first summit: "The history of achievement is ... in many cases ... the history of men and women who faced seemingly impossible odds and who overcame ... by using ... what they had in their hands." Africa has so much in its hands — rich resources, the talents and energy of its people, and the commitment of a new and growing generation of enlightened leaders, many of whom are here today.

Those gifts are the foundation for a great bridge between Africa and America — one that will lay the groundwork for an African renaissance and fulfill Leon Sullivan's vision. If we work together — if we reach out to each other — that vision can and will be realized.

Thank you.

Updated: July 2003