/ 7 July 2008

G8 rowback on African aid

Top officials at the United Nations are remonstrating with leaders of the G8 group of countries, as the rich country club prepares to dilute its commitment to development aid at its annual summit in Hokkaido next week.

A draft text of the G8 communiqué, leaked to the Financial Times, commits the group in broad terms to pledges on aid that were made at the 2005 summit in Gleneagles.

But it makes no mention of the previously agreed 2010 deadline to increase aid to Africa by $25-billion annually.

Also unmentioned is a target date for spending $60-billion to strengthen healthcare systems in the developing world which was agreed to at last year’s Heiligendamm summit in Germany.

Britain was more or less alone in wanting to stick to a firm time-frame on aid, UN officials, poverty relief activists and diplomats told the Mail & Guardian.

Other G8 countries, it seems, are reluctant to reaffirm their commitment to cash for development amid overwhelming domestic anxiety about the credit crunch, high oil and food prices and a global economic slowdown.

Rumours now circulating within the UN suggest that secretary general Ban Ki-moon may have cut a compromise deal to see health-related commitments firmed up.

Germany, for one, is pressing for the Heiligendamm promise on health to be maintained.

”We firmly believe in the commitments made at Heiligendamm and would be happy to reaffirm that at Hokkaido,” embassy spokesperson Jan Scheer told the M&G.

Insiders at the world body said, however, that the retreat from the $25-billion target would probably continue. They pointed to a recent German announcement that although the country’s aid commitment is growing faster than other areas of the federal budget it is set to shrink as a percentage of GDP until 2010 at the earliest.

That would further undercut promises made by industrialised countries in 1971 to try to spend 0,7% of GDP on development assistance.

The rowback comes as the UN has released data outlining the uneven progress countries are making in their efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for reducing poverty by 2015, and just how far behind the G8 is on its commitments.

G8 funding is seen by the UN development programme as crucial to the achievement of MDG targets for health and sanitation, education and economic investment, and the draft communiqué risks inflicting serious damage on the credibility of multilateral development programmes, officials warned.

”Halfway to the [2015] target date the G8 have delivered just 14% of the [development aid] commitment,” the third annual data report on the MDGs says.

The money that is being spent is producing results, the report says.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has put together an MDG Africa Steering Group, including African leaders, to draw up recommendations on how the MDGs can be achieved in Africa.

Releasing these, UN deputy secretary general Asha-Rose Migiro told African leaders gathered at Sharm-el-Sheik that the failure of the G8 to meet its commitments made it harder to meet millennium targets.

”The world’s most industrialised countries must live up to their global responsibilities, their past commitments and their obligations to future generations, knowing that the African Union will do the same,” she said.

Britain, meanwhile, has, with some success, been pushing Ban more forcefully to demand adherence to the Gleneagles and Heiligendamm promises.

It is understood that top United Kingdom officials have met Ban several times at the UN’s New York headquarters in a bid to ensure that the often reserved and cautious secretary general makes a strong statement about aid.

On Tuesday he did as advised. ”I would like to urge and emphasise that leaders of G8 should implement their commitment, which was made at the Gleneagles summit meeting,” he reportedly told a press conference in Japan.

The campaigning NGO, Oxfam, which calculates that the G8 is, on current form likely to miss its own aid targets by $30-billion, is lobbying leaders, in particular the Japanese presidency, to reinsert firm time-frames in the text.

”The current global context — recession, rising food and oil prices, the growing impact of climate change – must not be seen as an excuse for leaders to lower ambitions and push back on the poverty agenda, but as a compelling reason to urgently scale up commitments,” spokesperson Dan Timms told the M&G, echoing views privately expressed at the UN.

”When you realise that, faced with a financial crisis, rich countries have bailed out their banks to the tune of a trillion dollars, it highlights how comparatively little we are asking leaders to deliver to the developing world to meet the promises they have made.

”Their response to the credit crunch has proved that they can act quickly and with determination to resolve urgent crises.

”The only question mark is over their political will to do the same to alleviate the suffering of those who are worst hit by spiralling food prices and the growing impact of climate change,” Timms said.

While the UN’s top officials have been relatively diplomatic as they lobby for revisions of the G8 communiqué, there is frank anger at the UNDP over what is seen as G8 backsliding.

”It’s a slap in the face for Africa when it has already done so much through improved governance, better macroeconomic policies and strong growth to uphold its side of the development partnership that underpins the MDGs,” said one insider.

Within the South African government, enthusiasm for the principle of the MDGs has been mixed with scepticism about its architecture.

The G8s apparent unwillingness to follow through is regarded as confirming long-held suspicions of the treasury that the goals rely too much on flimsy Western promises of aid.

The UNDP is trying this week to fight that perception, roping in support from the rock star Bono to help promote the cause.

The Japanese embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.