The world can promote development in Africa by supporting the private sector in Africa, as Spanish businesses agreed to do this week, and combating people-trafficking mafias, according to a non-governmental aid group.

Supporting investment in Africa is important, Antonio Molina, secretary general of Fundacicn Sur, said on Thursday.

That was the commitment made during the Spain-Africa Business Cooperation meeting held Monday through Wednesday in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, a Spanish island located off the coast of northwest Africa.

The tide of emigrants from Africa must be stemmed, because it's usually the best people with the highest level of education who leave. They hope to find a better future in Europe, but many lose their lives in the attempt, and others are condemned to social exclusion, Molina said.

In the last few months, thousands of undocumented migrants from Africa have reached the Canary Islands by sea.

In his opinion, the exodus can be stopped by encouraging young Africans to set up businesses in their own countries, supporting these enterprises, and at the same time combating the mafias that organize and profit from trafficking in migrants.

As these are investigated, it becomes clear that they involve people at the highest levels of these societies, he said.

Two hundred members of the business community from Benin, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain and Togo attended the meeting in Las Palmas.

Adn Martin, the head of the regional government of the Canary Islands, urged business people not to look on Africa merely out of solidarity, but out of responsibility; because it was we of the Old Continent who forced our neighbors into the situation in which they are now living, referring to European colonialism.

The humanitarian crisis generated by the intermittent waves of undocumented migrants, thousands of whom cross the seas in frail boats, must be used to make European Union member countries understand they must finance development projects in Africa, Martin said.

Referring to the rise in Spanish investment in the last few years, and the further commitments made at this meeting, the president of Spain's High Council of the Chambers of Commerce, Javier Gcmez-Navarro, said that it demonstrates the aim of Spanish businesses to finally look Africa straight in the eye. He also said that the present levels of investment and trade are far too low.

Gcmez-Navarro mentioned infrastructure for transport, health and education as promising sectors for investment, as well as tourism and renewable energy sources, for which financing from international organizations and the public and private sector in Spain is available, he told the conference.

He also said that the Assembly of Chambers of Commerce of West Africa, formally established at the meeting, was a significant advance, and called it an excellent vehicle for closer institutional and business ties between that region and Spain.

The important thing now, he told IPS, is to get large, medium and small businesses together, with very flexible formulas, to stimulate national and international cooperation and promote environmentally and socially sustainable development.

One of the first tasks of the assembly, supported by the Las Palmas Chamber of Commerce, will be to work toward a borderless free trade zone, sharing information through a common network, and using it to seek more foreign investment.

For his part, Martin said that Africa cannot wait any longer. Public institutions in the Canary Islands, Spain and Europe can contribute decisively to turning the situation around, but we have to do it together.

Another task assumed by the assembly is to spread knowledge about real conditions in the African continent, and promote an image of Africa as an attractive investment opportunity. It will also train specialists to develop business cooperation projects, and contribute to making African businesses more competitive.

Representatives of the World Bank and COFIDES -- a joint-stock company of mixed capital that promotes investment by Spain in developing countries announced that funds were available for investment in Africa.

Paula Alayo, of the World Bank's International Finance Corp. (IFC), announced that the IFC has $1.7 billion available, while Teresa Madrigal of COFIDES announced that they would spend $900 million to finance Spanish companies' investments in development projects in the South.

But Alfredo Bonet, secretary general for foreign trade at the Spanish Ministry of Industry, criticized the barriers to trade with Africa that Spain throws up, and said the numerous difficulties that African business persons face to obtain a visa to visit this country must be overcome.

He said that the three ministries involved in this issue, those of Trade, Employment and the Interior, are working on that and he hoped that results would be forthcoming soon.

The head of the Gran Canario parliament, Jose Manuel Soria, made a similar statement. He said that the greatest constraints on trade between Spain and Africa are still the enormous administrative, regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles that public institutions have established on both sides of the ocean.

According to Soria, public institutions should not take on the mission of managing factories or competing with private enterprise, but should concentrate on eliminating the hurdles so that those who want to do business can do so.

A report was presented at the meeting which indicated that regional gross domestic product grown in Africa averaged 5 percent last year, and is expected to reach 6 percent this year.