Forget the rock stars and the news media feeding-frenzy. When finance ministers of the Group of Eight industrial countries meet in London this weekend they will be dealing with matters of life and death, especially for the children of sub-Saharan Africa.
The finance ministers' gathering is the last staging post en route to the full G-8 summit next month. After all the pledges to do something about Africa's poverty, this is a chance for rich countries to show that their promises are worth something.
Last year, the G-8 promised bold action to get Africa back on track for achieving the Millennium Development Goals - a compact to reduce extreme poverty and other forms of deprivation by 2015. These goals include cutting child deaths by two-thirds. Breaking the promise will cost lives.
Currently, poverty-related diseases claim the lives of 500 African children each hour - and the numbers are going up. The United Nations Development Program has just completed a country-by-country assessment of progress in reducing child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. The results are not for the faint-hearted.
If current trends continue over the next decade, the region will miss the millennium goals by an epic margin. On our estimates, there will be three million more child deaths in 2015 than there would be if the millennium target were met. By 2015 sub-Saharan Africa will account for two in every three child deaths in the world.
These trends are not destiny. It is difficult to think of any area in which so much could be done to improve human welfare for so little. Consider malaria, which claims the life of one child in Africa every minute. More than three-quarters of these deaths could be averted through a simple net treated with insecticide, costing $3-$5, or simple medicines.
Of course, getting sub-Saharan Africa back on track will take more than initiatives to tackle malaria, AIDS and other major killers. The underlying problem is endemic poverty. Poor households face a double burden: more vulnerable to disease because of malnutrition and inadequate access to clean water, they are also least able to afford treatment and least served by public health systems.
African governments have primary responsibility for developing national poverty reduction plans. But even the best national policies will fail unless Africa can close the chronic financing gaps that restrict opportunities for development.
So, what should finance ministers undertake to do this week? They could start by agreeing on the parameters of a new aid deal. The European Union has provided some leadership, pledging last month to double aid to 0.51 percent of gross national income by 2010 as a stepping stone to reaching the long-standing UN target of 0.70 percent. But at least two European G-8 members, Germany and Italy, are so far short that it will take an extraordinary effort for them to deliver on the new commitment. Both countries could allay fears by announcing concrete budget plans for achieving the target.
The United States, for its part, has increased aid by $8 billion since 2000. Yet the world's largest economy still spends only 0.16 percent of national income on official aid. Indeed, three G-8 countries - Japan, Italy and the United States - are among the nations who give the least aid in proportion to national income.
If the G-8 summit produced a commitment backed by budget plans to reach a 0.51 percent target for aid by 2010, it would help provide the finance that Africa needs to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. National plans could be backed with hard cash on a predictable basis. Improving aid practices would also help. Too much aid is still tied to overpriced goods and services provided by donors - a practice that diminishes value for money.
The G-8 summit could also free sub-Saharan Africa, for once and for all, from the shackles of unsustainable debt. All G-8 members agree that more needs to be done on debt. Unfortunately, that is where the consensus ends. There are disagreements over how to pay for World Bank and IMF debt reduction, over whether debt relief should come from existing aid budgets or new resources, and over how much debt relief should be provided. After almost two years of inertia, it is time for the G-8 to agree to a 100 percent debt cancellation.
The world's rich countries have a chance to put in place policies that could prevent three million additional child deaths. Africa's children do not have a voice at G-8 summits. But those avoidable deaths present three million reasons for the rich world to act now, before it is too late.
Kevin Watkins is the director of the UN Human Development Report Office.
© 2005 IHT