It’s easy, what with the duck ponds, ministerial hissy fits, and media hysteria in the Westminster village, to see how events in Africa can slip under the political radar – events like a few million people dropping below the poverty line, surging child malnutrition, and parents struggling to keep their kids in school.
We are now just a few weeks from the G8 summit in Italy. With Africa on the brink of a major development reversal caused by global recession, it is vital that the summit acts decisively to support recovery. This is the most important meeting on African poverty since the Gleneagles summit four year ago. Yet it is heading for the rocks. Last week, G8 development ministers met to prepare the ground. After two days of deliberation, they emerged with a statement of such vacuous complacency that you could be forgiven for wondering if Africa’s poverty had escaped their attention.
G8 complacency is something the region can ill afford. On one estimate, the economic slowdown could cause an additional 700,000 infant deaths. The number of people in poverty is projected to rise by about 10 million this year, wiping out the fragile gains of the last eight years, and jeopardising gains in health and education.
The G8 summit in L’Aquila could help to change this picture. It needs to deliver what the G20 summit in London last March so conspicuously failed to do: namely, an early and large injection of aid without IMF strings attached.
The summit could start by acting on the Gleneagles promise to double aid by 2010. Some countries have held to that pledge. Since Gleneagles, Britain has increased aid to Africa by $1.1bn. It is now on course to become the first G8 country to hit the UN target of giving 0.7% of national income in aid. The decision to increase real spending on aid in the last budget round provided international leadership by example. Give credit where it’s due: Gordon Brown has a commitment to African poverty reduction hard-wired into his political DNA.
Unfortunately, other G8 leaders appear to see African poverty more as a political branding opportunity. After four years of doing nothing, Italy recently announced deep aid cuts. Silvio Berlusconi can now add indifference to suffering overseas to his accomplishments at home. Japan is also under-performing. More worryingly, there are signs that France, already lagging on its commitments, is set to cut aid to Africa.
Sub-Saharan Africa does not need new promises. What it needs is a commitment to provide the additional $14bn by 2010 to deliver on the old ones – and it needs the finance now. You don’t wait for child death rates to spiral and kids to drop out of school before acting. That’s why the Italy summit should agree to front-load financing plans for strengthening health systems. And it’s why the summit should deliver the long-overdue $1.2bn replenishment of an initiative – the Fast Track Initiative – to support universal primary education.
A rash of high-profile commentaries has asserted that development assistance is useless at best, and harmful to the poor at worst. The facts tell a different story. Before the downturn, strong economic growth was pushing poverty numbers down for the first time in three decades. In countries such as Mozambique and Ethiopia aid has supported health interventions that have cut child deaths by over 40%. In Tanzania, it has helped put another 3 million children in school. Meanwhile, the Global Fund to Fight Aids is delivering anti-retroviral drugs to 1.5 million pregnant women.
You try telling the mothers of African children now seizing the chance of an education that aid doesn’t work. Better still, try joining the campaigners mobilising to hold G8 leaders to account.