With celebrities such as the rock star Bono exhorting the world's youth to demand justice for Africa's poor from the leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations, the annual G-8 summit this week is fraught with more excitement than usual. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the host of the summit in Scotland, shares many of the goals of the "Make Poverty History" campaign (or the ONE campaign, as the initiative in the United States is known), and he has put top priority on securing the backing of his fellow leaders for a $25 billion increase in annual aid to Africa plus a massive write-off of poor countries' debts.
Until recently, it looked as if Blair might tangle with President Bush on the Africa issue, which would revive criticism that the British premier had nothing to show from Washington for his backing of the Iraq war. U.S. and British officials were at odds over how to handle debt forgiveness, and Washington was maintaining its position that improving aid effectiveness is more important than increasing aid amounts. The administration was trumpeting Bush's signature aid initiative, the Millennium Challenge Account, which is aimed at boosting aid to a select group of countries with sound policies, even though the program has been racked by criticism that helped prompt its chief executive to resign last month.
But on Thursday, Bush gave a speech announcing a $1.7 billion package of aid for Africa and proposing to double, by 2010, the $3.2 billion the United States currently gives to the continent's countries. True, that included substantial amounts Bush had already pledged to spend (including Millennium Challenge funds), and it was not enough to increase total aid as much as Blair had hoped. But it was greeted enthusiastically in London, and it came atop an accord last month to completely forgive the debt of 18 nations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. In a further sign of transatlantic comity, the world's creditor nations also agreed in principle Thursday to write off about two-thirds of the $30 billion debt owed by Nigeria, which hadn't been included in the earlier debt deal.
Whether all this largesse will do any good is of course another matter. In a bit of awkward timing, two studies released by the International Monetary Fund questioned claims that aid boosts economic growth. "We need to be careful, given the checkered history of aid, that we do not place more hopes on aid as an instrument of development than it is capable of delivering," the IMF said.
But aid advocates are delighted that their mobilization of support appears to be prodding the G-8 to take major steps. "What they need as leaders of democratic societies is permission to do something great and historic," said Seth Amgott, a spokesman for the ONE campaign. "They may be crawling toward something historic, and we need to turn up the volume to give them permission."