updated 1/27/2005 6:35:46 AM ET 2005-01-27T11:35:46

The world’s richest man, one of its most visible social activists and Britain’s leader put a sharp focus on the horrors facing Africa’s poor on Thursday, saying the planet’s indifference to the suffering has been scandalous.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has made Africa a focus of his leadership of the G-8 this year, said the continent’s plight is “a scar on the conscience of the world” and questioned whether the global community would allow such poverty to persist anywhere else in the world.

“I almost think if what was happening in Africa today as we speak was happening in any other part of the world there would be such a scandal and clamor that governments would be falling over themselves to do something about this,” Blair said at the second day of the World Economic Forum in this Swiss ski resort.

Bill Gates, who has amassed an estimated fortune of $48 billion as founder of Microsoft, said most of the disease and despair on the continent would be easily preventable if resources were applied.

“Millions of children die in Africa who shouldn’t die, who it would be very easy to save,” he said. “The fact that we don’t apply the resources to the known cures or to finding better cures is really ... the most scandalous issue of our time.”

(MSNBC is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal)

Gates recently put more of his money where his mouth is, pledging $750 million to support immunization programs in developing countries.

Bono praised both men, saying they were “getting it right.” Of Gates, he said: “He is a brainy man and he thinks extreme poverty is stupid.”

During a keynote address to the conference Wednesday, Blair read off a litany of statistics:

  • 300 million Africans lack safe drinking water.
  • Three thousand African children under the age of five day every day from Malaria.
  • Six thousand Africans die daily of AIDS.

“We know all of this. So what can be done?” Blair said.

A panel later Thursday including Blair, Bono, former President Clinton and Gates, as well as the presidents of South Africa and Nigeria, was also debating the issue of Africa.

Power meeting
The annual meeting in Davos brings together 2,500 of the world’s leading business, intellectual, political and social leaders. Business participants pay $12,000 each for the privilege of attending five days of seminars on how to solve the world’s yawning prosperity gap, the need to commit resources to fight AIDS, and the threat of terrorism.

The conference has made a point in recent years of being more inclusive of those opposed to the globalization that most business leaders trumpet. Some speakers had blunt messages for the business elite, saying the lofty ideals set out at the summit are too often divorced from the reality of business behavior.

“If you actually look at CEO pay, it’s actually decoupled from performance,” said Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard Business School professor. “We fool ourselves if we think that the average individual doesn’t see that.”

Speaking at a session Thursday entitled “Does Business Have a Noble Purpose?” Khurana said CEO pay has risen dramatically in relation to that of average employees in recent decades, and the pay packages are often harmful to a company’s rank-and-file.

In his speech Wednesday, Blair urged the United States to take the world’s needs into account when it seeks global support for its actions, citing climate change as an issue all nations must address together.

“If America wants the rest of the world to be part of the agenda it has set, it must be part of their agenda, too,” he told the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

He added, however, that President Bush’s speech at his second term inauguration speech last week indicated that “there is a wish to reunify” in Washington.

In separate appearances, he and French President Jacques Chirac — who addressed the conference by video — said large-scale, sustained assistance for the poor can only make the world a more stable place, but outlined different scenarios on how to get there.

Referring to the Dec. 26 tsunami that struck Asian coastlines, Chirac said:

“The world suffers chronically from what has been strikingly called the ’silent tsunamis.’ Famine. Infectious diseases that decimate the life force of entire continents.”

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