Published on Wednesday, June 9, 2004 by the International Herald Tribune
G-8 and Africa: A Continent Tired of Empty Promises
by Kevin Watkins
The summit meeting this week of the Group of Eight industrialized countries at Sea Island, Georgia, has all the makings of a rich-country talkfest of spectacular irrelevance to the real world. But it doesn't have to be like this.
Africa figures prominently on the G-8 agenda. Sea Island will be the third summit meeting in succession to which African leaders have been invited for what the G-8 describes as "dialogue" - a euphemism, in this context, for listening to pious declarations and empty promises. Nothing of substance has so far been delivered. Yet even a modicum of political leadership could change this picture, helping to restore the credibility of the G-8 in the process.
The extreme poverty, ill-health, and vulnerability that blights Africa is one of the greatest challenges to the goal of a just and stable world. The case for international action speaks for itself. Half of Africa's people - 300 million in total - survive on less than $1 a day. Only eight countries, accounting for less than 15 percent of the population, are on track for achieving the international target of halving poverty. Preventable diseases claim the lives of one in six children. Fewer than half of the survivors complete primary school.
Conflict is at the heart of Africa's poverty, as demonstrated by the disaster now unfolding in Darfur, Sudan, where more than one million people have been displaced. The catastrophe is set to worsen with the annual rains beginning.
On any index of human need and suffering, Africa should be attracting as much G-8 concern as the Middle East. Perhaps if the region were seen as more of a threat to northern security, it would. Instead, the hope invested by Africans in international cooperation gets repaid with indifference.
Consider the response of rich countries to the crisis in Darfur. Tens of thousands of lives are at immediate risk. Yet after months of haggling, and even with new aid pledges made at a donor conference last week, UN emergency assistance programs are underfunded. The G-8 summit meeting provides an opportunity to change this picture.
Beyond immediate humanitarian crises, the summit meeting should also signal a new approach to long-term development assistance. The lesson across Africa is that aid works. It has helped Uganda turn the corner on AIDS, put more than a million Kenyan children in school, and helped sustain growth in Tanzania and Mozambique. Yet aid to Africa has been cut on a per capita basis from $33 a decade ago to $20 today.
Put diplomatically, the G-8 record on aid is shameful. Not one of its members is remotely near the UN target of spending 0.7 percent of national income on development assistance. Only one country, France, has bothered to set a time frame for reaching it. The United States is marooned at the bottom of the international generosity league table, just below Japan and Italy, both of which are cutting budgets. Prime Minister Tony Blair may talk a good line on healing the scar of Africa's poverty but he resolutely refuses to commit Britain to the 0.7 percent target.
Two years ago, at the G-8 summit meeting in Calgary, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa challenged rich countries to come up with a Marshall Plan for Africa. The proposal was followed by a deafening silence because G-8 governments regarded it as unaffordable. They need to think again. Meeting UN human development goals for Africa would cost from $20 billion to $25 billion a year above existing aid flows. Compare this with the additional $80 billion mobilized by the United States for the war in Iraq. Britain has found an additional $5 billion for the war on terror. This is about three times the aid directed toward fighting the war on poverty in Africa.
Next year, Britain will host the G-8 summit meeting, and Blair has promised that a doubling of aid will be at the top of his agenda. But why wait until next year? The Sea Island summit meeting provides a chance for all G-8 countries to commit themselves to reaching the 0.7 percent target by 2010.
The choices facing rich-country governments are clear. They can act now to show Africa that cooperation with the G-8 works. Or they can deliver more empty promises and hope that Africa's tragedies stay within African borders. That would be a dreadful miscalculation.
Kevin Watkins is head of research at Oxfam.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune