Published on Friday, July 21, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian (UK)
World Leaders Will Today Promise To Help The Poor. Empty Words Again?
by Mark Atkinson in Okinawa and Charlotte Denny
The leaders of the world's seven richest nations plus Russia will today sit down at the start of their annual summit. The so-called Group of Eight will meet in a new conference centre called Bankoku Shinryo ("bridge across the world"), purpose built on a palm-fringed bay on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

About 22,000 officers and eight destroyers will ensure their safety. A thousand artists and musicians will perform for them on a floating stage on the shoreline tonight.

The eight leaders will assemble around the summit table today to discuss the question of third world debt. Mr Blair, under increasing pressure to deliver, will lead the session and urge his fellow world leaders to move speedily towards cancelling debt outright for many of the poorest nations.

"The prime minister will tell them, 'Let's make that a reality'," a Downing Street spokesman said.

Mr Blair is expected to set out an accelerated timetable for debt relief, with a commitment to push the deal through by the end of the year. The British government's position is that the more debt is written off, the more able developing countries in Africa and elsewhere will be to cope with such devastating problems as Aids, illiteracy and environmental degradation.

At the last G8 summit in Cologne in June last year, he made a strikingly similar declaration.

"We can't tolerate a situation where some countries spend 10% of their income on health and education and 60% on servicing debt," he said.

At the end of the Cologne summit Mr Blair declared a breakthrough: "I believe this summit will mark probably the biggest step forward in debt that we have seen for many years."

He was echoed by Bill Clinton who said an "historic step" had been taken towards helping the world's poorest nations "achieve sustained growth and independence".

Under the deal agreed in Cologne the G7 rich countries - Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US - pledged to push through "faster, deeper and broader" debt relief, with a target of cutting the overall amounts owed by 41 poor countries by more than half.

Between them, they agreed, they would write off an extra $45bn of debts as soon as possible.

A year later, none of that debt relief has been delivered. None of the earmarked poor nations have had their debt cancelled. Only nine have had small reductions in their debt service.

The US has failed to stump up with cash to pay for its share of debt relief because President Clinton has been unable to get his request for funds through Congress- and the European Union and Japan have used the US failure as an excuse for delaying their own contributions. In fact Japan has spent more on hosting its fellow world leaders this weekend - $750m (£500m), the most ever spent on a G8 summit - than it has contributed so far to the cause of cancelling the debts of the world's poorest countries.

The outcome is that poor countries continue to be drained of scarce resources. Christian Aid calculates that poor countries are paying their wealthy lenders $21.9bn every year at a rate of about $60m a day. At least three quarters of this, the charity says, is servicing debts that can never be repaid.

The impact is felt most keenly in Africa, where Kofi Annan, general secretary of the United Nations, has estimated 40% of all government income is now servicing a total debt of some $350bn.

Mr Annan this week wrote to the G8 leaders pleading for action on a debt burden that was "to the detriment of health, education and other es sential services" of all countries struggling against debt.

At today's summit talks, Mr Blair will attempt to wrestle the programme back on track. No one questions the prime minister's determination - Britain has rallied efforts to tackle the problem and in the past year is the only G7 country unilaterally to have written off debt.

Ann Pettifor of Jubilee 2000, the global coalition of charities campaigning for debt relief, said: "After a year of failure we don't want new promises that are not going to be kept and token measures presented as major development."

"Six months ago the British government was at the forefront of efforts to drop third world debt, but now Tony Blair seems to have lost the initiative," says Daleep Mukarji, the director of Christian Aid.

Olusegun Obasanjo, the president of Nigeria which has a total debt of $30bn, spoke for many indebted African countries yesterday when he said that without help they were powerless to break out of cycles of poverty and disease.

And he issued a challenge to the eight men sitting around today's summit table: "It is no longer a question of what we should do. We all know what we should do.

"The question is do we have the political will? Do we have the moral ability?"

Broken pledges

The 1999 pledges

• $100bn in debt write-offs for the world's poorest countries

• 25 countries to begin debt relief process by end of 2000

• G7 countries to cancel 100% of debts owed to them

• Major economies to build a $2.25bn fund to cover debts owed to World Bank and International Monetary Fund

12 months on

• G7 has offered just $10bn in debt write-offs, all under older debt agreements

• No G7 country apart from Britain has delivered 100% debt relief

• US promised $600m for the fund to cover World Bank and IMF's share of debt relief. So far it has delivered nothing

• World Bank/IMF trust fund is in danger of running out of money by the end of the year


Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000