Some Aid Can Be Hard to Stomach

L'AQUILA, Italy - As numbers go, and as expectations went, 20 billion dollars would be a fair bit for the G8 to produce to fight the food crisis and bring down hunger. Certainly, it was more than most expected.
Many members of civil society would have been happy enough with 15 billion dollars over four years - if only because they have learnt over time to expect relatively little. As it stands the G8 spoke of 20 billion dollars in three years.

Spoke, that is. And carefully, too. The G8 leaders (and another five from major developing countries, and Egypt) said in their declaration at the end of their three-day summit that they "welcomed commitments" by the countries meeting in L'Aquila, Italy "towards a goal of mobilising 20 billion dollars over three years..." Not a joint pledge, but a welcome step towards an ideal.

After some years of promises made and not kept, the G8 (Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Canada, Japan and the United States) would seem right to lose a little faith in themselves. At least the language is more careful. Remember the G8 at Gleneagles in Scotland when that nice round figure of 50 billion dollars of aid one way or another was doing the rounds. The precise fraction of that which was for real has never quite been worked out.

And so civil society is not celebrating yet. "What we could say is that it is a belated step in the right direction," Kumi Naidoo, global co-chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), told IPS. "However, we have to look at the details because the G8 are masters of spin."

For example, Naidoo said, among the more recent ones, "the commitment of 30 billion dollars of food aid made in June 2008 has not yet been realised. So we want to see who's putting up the money, when the money will be available, how the money will be available, before we can embrace it fully as a success."

Italy, the host country, he said, has thought nothing of cutting aid by 500 million dollars. So who will pay more and who will even cut down what aid they were giving is less than clear. "We would like to hear from the Italian government if there has been any shift in their thinking as a result of the G8." If that is in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's thoughts at all, that is.

But more fundamentally than amounts declared as goals and those fractions delivered, Naidoo says the G8 must go beyond the business of producing numbers and simply wiping off its hands as a job well done. The G8 must think differently, he says. And recent times dictate why it must.

"Food price rises, fuel price rises, the financial crisis, the ongoing poverty and the ongoing climate crisis...they have all come together," he said. "A good big crisis is a terrible thing to squander away - we should think of these crises as opportunity. The G8 is thinking of each of these as stand-alone problems rather than looking for ways to see how we can respond to these problems in an integrated, non-fragmented way."

That kind of thinking is still some miles beyond the horizon. Right now civil society will have to live with watching that number space. And to count how much less money will be forthcoming than what it seems, or what is said.

Because even if the entire 20 billion were to come and get to the right people at the right time - among the bigger 'even ifs' of the world - it would still not be enough.

The G8 note in their declaration that "the number of people suffering from hunger and poverty now exceeds one billion." And so 20 billion dollars, say for the moment all of it, still adds up to 20 dollars a hungry head over three years. That money does not buy a lot of food in any part of the world.

True, this is not an entirely fair numbers game either. The money could be used sensibly to promote agriculture rather than as traditional aid. But this is crisis money, and falls short of even the minimum demanded by the global meltdown.

"This money will not be sufficient to deal with the challenges of the food crisis across the world," Otive Igbuzor, international head of campaigns at ActionAid, told IPS. "The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has estimated that what is needed to deal with the challenges of the food crisis is 30 billion dollars every year."

And what, again, when the G8 takes away more than it can give. Hunger is on the rise because the EU and the U.S. want biofuels, Igbuzor said. "Production of agro-fuel is increasing because of EU and U.S. subsidies, and the EU target for fuel from agro sources. There must be a stoppage of subsidies and targets on agro-fuel." Twenty million hectares of fertile land in Africa, he said, has been given to corporations from Europe and the U.S., "and all of these are swelling the food crisis."

So it's not all quite adding up: not words with numbers, not claims with records, not aid with what is being taken.

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