FREETOWN (Reuters) - When African leaders meet their rich G8 counterparts next week the inevitable smiles will mask bitter disappointment over broken promises on both sides.
G8 nations are falling short of grand pledges they made at a summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005 to double aid to Africa by 2010. Western leaders are increasingly frustrated by Africa’s lack of progress in tackling crises such as Darfur and Zimbabwe.
“I want to hold the G8 countries to their promise. When you sign a contract, you absolutely must stick to it,” said Angelique Kidjo, a singer from Benin who has joined Irish rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof in campaigning against world poverty.
G8 aid to Africa will fall $40 billion short of the Gleneagles pledge under current plans, according to a report last month by an Africa Progress Panel, which was set up to monitor implementation of the 2005 commitments.
But surging oil and food prices, an economic downturn in major G8 economies and tensions over world trade talks may push Africa down the agenda this time around.
Hoping to keep the spotlight on Africa, former Boomtown Rats singer Geldof criticized the “low level of expectation” coming from the world’s wealthiest countries about fighting poverty.
“I cannot stand the idea that a food crisis born out of high energy prices and increasing global prosperity is starving the super-poor in Africa,” Geldof said in a statement announcing he would go to the G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan.
“None of this is helped by bad trade and subsidy policies,” Geldof added in the statement, released by anti-poverty campaign groups ONE and DATA. He urged Japan to take the lead to deliver solutions for Africa’s poor from the world’s richest states.
“It’s about time their actions lived up to their perhaps misplaced stature,” Geldof said.
Geldof visited Sierra Leone last month to see for himself the impact of aid and private sector investment in the country ranked bottom of the most recent U.N. Human Development Index.
“Something more has to be done here so that people are fed,” Geldof said, describing Sierra Leone, part of what was once West Africa’s ‘Rice Coast’ as “so green it makes Ireland look beige”.
Geldof’s prediction Africa would be “a giant economic power by 2040” might be a stretch, but there are reasons for optimism.
Japan, for example, has already met its Gleneagles pledges.
Sierra Leone will save $36 million this year thanks to debt relief, partly via a G8 scheme, and is using it to restore mains power which collapsed during a devastating 1991-2002 civil war.
But experts warn food inflation threatens to eat away at such progress as poor countries struggle to make ends meet.
“The rising cost of food must ... play a central role during this year’s G8, as currently 800 million of the poorest people on this planet cannot afford food,” the Sierra Leone office of the British government’s aid wing DfID said.
“If we don’t deal with rising food prices the entire first Millennium Development Goal — to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger — will never be achieved,” it said.
The U.N. Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000 set out key targets to reduce world poverty by 2015, although many poor countries especially in Africa are not expected to achieve them.
Rising food prices have also polarized positions over trade, just as World Trade Organisation talks on the “Doha Development Round” head to a key ministerial summit in late July intended to hammer out a long-delayed deal to liberalize global trade.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who assumed the rotating European Union presidency on Tuesday, has opposed dismantling EU agricultural subsidies which poor countries blame for keeping world prices low and for keeping their produce out of Europe.
“What African agriculture wants is open market access to Europe, but what Sarkozy is arguing for is more protection,” Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House thinktank, said.
The G8 groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The elephant in the room is China, whose massive demand for oil and commodities has thrown state budgets and inflation planning into disarray by pushing up prices and whose aid and investment packages challenge the role of Western aid in Africa.
Rising prices for Africa’s commodities exports and increased foreign investment should strengthen Africa’s bargaining power vis a vis the G8 and the Western-dominated IMF and World Bank.
Yet several African leaders due to attend the Japan summit — the same group represented at Gleneagles in 2005 — will do so in a much weaker position than three years ago. This includes outgoing South African President Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s Umaru Yar’Adua, who was elected in flawed polls last year.
That will do little to mitigate the perennial problem of such summits: their remoteness from the realities of poverty.
As Kaly Jalloh, an unemployed youth of 19, said in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown: “We don’t know anything about aid, but we know that poverty is too much.”