Obama meets Pope, urges rich to feed the hungry in Africa
July 11, 2009 4:00 AM
AP Photo/Chris Helgren
President Barack Obama, escorted by Swiss Guards and Vatican ushers, looks up at artworks on his way to meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. President Obama sat down with the pontiff on Friday for a meeting in which frank but constructive talks were expected between two men who agree on helping the poor but disagree on abortion and stem cell research.
By Peter Baker and Rachel Donadio The New York Times
L'AQUILA, Italy -- President Barack Obama yesterday told African nations that the legacy of colonialism was not an excuse for failing to build prosperous, democratic societies even as he leaned on the world's richest nations to come up with billions of dollars more to feed the hungry.
Hours before he arrived in Ghana to begin his first trip as president to sub-Saharan Africa, Mr. Obama made a personal appeal to other Group of Eight leaders meeting in L'Aquila for larger donations to the aid effort, citing his own family's experiences in Kenya. As a result, the initiative grew from $15 billion over three years, which was pledged coming into the summit meeting, to $20 billion.
At a news conference afterward, Mr. Obama said that when his father came to the United States, his home country of Kenya had an economy as large as that of South Korea, per capita. Today, he noted, Kenya remains impoverished and politically unstable, while South Korea has become an economic powerhouse.
"There had been some talk about the legacies of colonialism and other policies by wealthier nations," he said, "and without in any way diminishing that history, the point I made was that the South Korean government, working with the private sector and civil society, was able to create a set of institutions that provided transparency and accountability and efficiency that allowed for extraordinary economic progress, and that there was no reason why African countries could not do the same."
He also criticized the culture of corruption in some African countries, saying that those who wanted to start a business or get a job there "still have to pay a bribe." While wealthy nations must help, he said, poorer countries "have an obligation" to reform themselves.
Mr. Obama said his thinking had been affected in part by conversations with his relatives who still lived in Kenya. "They themselves are not going hungry, but live in villages where hunger is real," he said. "And so this is something that I understand in very personal terms."
Other American presidents have called on African countries to take more responsibility for their countries' problems and have pressed them to fight corruption, but none with Mr. Obama's background. Just one generation removed from Africa himself, he occupies a powerful place in the African consciousness.
Mr. Obama left the G-8 summit meeting, held in this earthquake-rattled region, to head to the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI. In a 30-minute tete-a-tete, the two discussed some of the summit meeting themes, including international development aid and immigration, but also Middle East peace and questions of bioethics. While they diverge over issues like abortion and stem-cell research, the Vatican and the Obama administration share common ground on some social issues. "We hope to build strong relations between our countries," Mr. Obama said after the meeting in the papal library.
For his first Vatican trip, Mr. Obama was joined by his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8 --all three of whom wore black dresses and black silk veils covering their hair. The Obamas shook the pope's hand, and some of the president's Catholic aides kissed his ring. Then the president and pontiff sat down without the family.
The meeting came just days after Pope Benedict released his latest encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate," which calls for more ethics in business and represents the church's latest thinking about the economy in a globalized world.
Mr. Obama met separately with the Vatican secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. "They talked about the encyclical and how some of the issues raised in it are in keeping with some of the priorities of the Obama administration," said a person present who insisted on anonymity to discuss a private meeting.
Mr. Obama gave the pope a letter from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who is battling brain cancer, and the president asked the pope to pray for him. Pope Benedict gave Mr. Obama a mosaic depicting Saint Peter's Basilica, a leather-bound and signed copy of "Caritas in Veritate," and a copy of "Dignitas Personae," or "The Dignity of the Person," the church's latest document on bioethics, released in December.
Some observers saw this last gift as a victory for U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been vocal in their criticism of Mr. Obama on issues like abortion. After accepting it, the president remarked that it would give him "some reading on the flight" to Ghana.
At his earlier news conference, Mr. Obama set September as a deadline for Iran to negotiate about its nuclear development program and declared without elaborating that, if it did not, "We need to take further steps."
But while Mr. Obama hailed progress with Russia during a stop in Moscow this week, President Dmitri A. Medvedev returned to sharper rhetoric about U.S. missile defense plans. In Moscow, he repeated a past threat to deploy short-range missiles in the western enclave of Kaliningrad if Mr. Obama proceeded with an anti-missile project in Poland and the Czech Republic.
The food aid initiative agreed upon at the summit meeting is designed to transform traditional aid to poorer countries beyond simply donated produce, grains and meats to assistance building infrastructure and training farmers to grow their own food and get it to market more efficiently.
Despite Mr. Obama's efforts to boost the program, it remained unclear how much was actually new money.
"The sums just aren't adding up," said Otive Igbuzor, head of ActionAid's hunger campaign. "Given the G-8's record on delivery, this is still very much a work in progress."