Broken promises

Bush declines to increase U.S. aid for Africa as a new U.N. report reveals the expected toll in child deaths from the failure to reduce global poverty.

By Patrick Wintour - Larry Elliott
Published June 8, 2005 3:46PM (EDT)

Three million children will die in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa as a result of the failure of the global community to meet its promise of slashing the death rates of children under age 5 by 2015, the United Nations is to reveal Wednesday. With Tony Blair Tuesday struggling to persuade George W. Bush to back Britain's ambitious plans for Africa, the U.N. Development Program said the human cost to Africa in child deaths would be the equivalent of twice the combined under-5 population of New York, London and Tokyo.

A study by the UNDP -- timed to put pressure on G8 leaders ahead of their summit at Gleneagles, Scotland, next month -- showed that based on current trends, the global community will miss by a wide margin the targets it set for poverty, infant mortality and education in the millennium development goals agreed to by the U.N. in 2000.

"These numbers should serve as a wake-up call for G8 leaders," said Kevin Watkins, the director of the U.N.'s Human Development Report office. "Africa cannot afford to see the world's richest countries sleepwalk their way to a heavily signposted -- and easily avoidable -- human development disaster."

In 2000 the U.N. announced that by 2015 the global community would cut infant mortality by two-thirds, halve the number of people living on less than a dollar a day and put every child in school.

On the basis of current UNDP projections, there will be 5 million under-5 deaths in Africa, compared with 2 million if the goals were achieved; 115 million children deprived of an education; and 219 million extra people living below the poverty line.

The outline of a wide deal between George. W. Bush and Tony Blair on debt and aid for Africa took shape Tuesday night after lengthy talks between the leaders in Washington, which were seen as a test of Blair's true influence over his coalition partner in Iraq. Blair wants to secure a landmark deal for Africa at the summit of G8 leaders in July but is battling against a U.S. administration under little domestic pressure to lift its aid budget.

Blair described talks on a debt relief package for Africa as "close to a deal. We are a significant way to a deal, and that would be very important if we could do that," he said. "I am increasingly hopeful we can get a good deal on that."

He conceded that "there are still issues that we need to resolve," and that British hopes of being able to spell out the details of the package had been dashed, leaving further issues to be resolved at a meeting of G7 finance ministers chaired by Gordon Brown in London this weekend.

Blair acknowledged the details were intricate and that the U.S. was reluctant to fund interest payments to the World Bank in the event of total debt cancellation. A total cancellation of multilateral debt for the poorest African countries would be worth as much as $15 billion.

The prime minister also acknowledged that the Americans seem willing to boost their aid budget further, but only for specific programs covering issues such as water and vaccination. He also said that the U.S. would not fund an aid increase through the British Treasury's chosen method of an international finance facility, a means of borrowing the money through the bond market.

Many aid agencies reacted angrily to the initial smoke signals emerging from the Washington talks. They feared a Bush offer to provide $674 million for famine relief in Africa represented the limit of American generosity.

Oxfam warned: "To drop the bar now and lower the ambition at this critical juncture would be seen by many as a betrayal." It added: "Saving Africa has to be more important than saving Blair's face."

Blair also seemed to acknowledge that he faced an uphill battle in persuading President Bush to back mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions or to accept that the science on global warming shows the urgency for action. "It is important we recognize the need to take clear and immediate action, whether it is taken from the perspective of climate change or energy security and supply," he said.

The science academies of the G8 states Tuesday issued a joint demand for action on climate change, saying it was "vital that all nations identify cost-effective steps that they can take now, to contribute to substantial and long-term reduction in net global greenhouse gas emissions."

One source close to the negotiating process over the document, published by the U.K.'s Royal Society after months of discussions, called the support of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for the document "unprecedented." In 2001 the U.S. academy declined to sign a similar joint statement.

Blair, who will not attend the Live 8 concert in London even though he is delighted at the apparent success of the project, was lobbying Christian right and Republican senators Tuesday in to help create a political backdrop in the United States before which Bush would be willing to act. But with only weeks to the G8 summit and further shuttle diplomacy ahead in Germany, Russia and France next week, time is running out for Prime Minister Blair.

Patrick Wintour

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Larry Elliott

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