Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Africa and climate change rise up the agenda

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Topic a at this week's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, according to an article in The New York Times, is the sinking dollar and the soaring US budget deficit. I don't know which Davos The New York Times was at, but it plainly wasn't the same one as me. In truth, the dollar isn't even topic C or D. Maybe about F would be the appropriate ranking, for although the soaraway US budget deficit lurks unwanted, like Banquo's ghost, at every session and cocktail party, it is not something anyone wants to think about much, still less try to address. To most American business leaders here in this Swiss Alpine resort, the budget deficit is an irrelevance, and the dire warnings of some economists about the unsustainability of US growth, just a load of baloney.

Topics A and B at Davos are in fact what Britain's two leading politicians, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, want to talk about - Africa and, some rungs of the ladder lower, global climate change. These might seem odd subjects for debate by the world's business elite, more used as it is to concentrating on the bottom line than addressing the problems of the world, but in economic terms it is actually a rather good sign, for companies and the governments they toil under only begin to worry about the state of the world when they feel confident in their prosperity. A cynic would also say that post the tsunami, politicians have suddenly begun to realise that there may be votes in compassion, or even carbon constraints.

Five years ago here at Davos it was Bill Gates and other titans of the IT and internet age that drew the crowds. Today it is Bono, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and yes, still Bill Gates, but not any longer for the success of his company. Rather it is for his vaccination programmes and his other contributions to the fight against African poverty.

Most business participants here in Davos come primarily to network and to bask in the reflected glory of the rich, powerful and the influential that these meetings attract. At the never ending round of sessions, lunches, dinners and parties, it is possible to rub shoulders not just with the more than 40 heads of state and hundreds of political leaders gathered here, but with Bill Gates, Bono, Sharon Stone and Richard Gere.

There's also the chance to reflect on issues and ideas which are not the normal stuff of business life and ambition. Yet all business is eventually going to have to come to terms with a future where carbon emissions are restricted and no business can any longer ignore the plight of the world's forgotten continent - Africa. The enormous advances in prosperity the West and large parts of Asia have seen over the past 20 years have almost wholly bypassed Africa, which has actually gone backwards, with already poor life expectancy and living standards falling further behind.

Here in Davos, with the atmosphere galvanised by the great outpouring of private and government-sponsored aid prompted by the tsunami, there seems no shortage of determination finally to address these issues. Indeed, everyone is agreed that both for Africa and climate change, this is a make or break year.

While Messrs Blair and Brown face their critics at home, there is almost universal applause here for their decision to put action on Africa and climate change at the top of the agenda for Britain's chairmanship of the G8 this year. The nuances of their quarrel and somewhat childish attempts to outdo each other in global poverty initiatives is almost wholly lost on this audience.

The weak dollar will barely figure at next week's meeting in London of G7 finance ministers, chaired by Mr Brown.

Instead the Chancellor will conspire to focus the entire meeting on cancellation of multilateral debt to Africa, and on his proposals for an International Finance Facility (IFF), aimed at using the capital markets substantially to increase the international aid budget. It seems unlikely he'll succeed with either at that particular meeting - America has yet to come on board - but with both France and Germany having given backing to the IFF this week, bringing to four the number of G7 nations that have overtly backed the proposal, he's plainly making progress. With the Commission for Africa due to report in March, the stage will have been set for a more concerted effort at the G8 summit this summer in Gleneagles to bring about a step change in support for the poorer nations.

The idea of the IFF is that money would be raised in the capital markets against the security of future aid budgets, thus delivering an immediate and substantial injection of increased cash. French and German support for the proposal is not without its caveats.

What happens to already constrained national budgets when the money so raised eventually has to be repaid continues to cause concern. Or as Jacques Chirac, the French president put it, speaking by video link to the conference from Paris (the weather deterred him from appearing in person): "The problem is how to reimburse these loans without reducing international aid or putting too great a strain on budgets".

M. Chirac's solution is to back these loans with new resources, levied through a raft of international taxes. Wearing his G8 chairman's hat, Mr Blair was careful not to dismiss the Chirac proposals out of hand. For his part, Mr Brown seemed positively to welcome them, saying he was more than happy to make M.Chirac's suggestions part of the discussion.

However, it is Mr Brown's own IFF which seems to stand the best chance of building an international consensus for boosting African aid.

The idea of international taxes, levied on capital flows and aviation, is highly unlikely to win US support, and even if it did, it would be almost impossible legally and practically to create a structure for levying and collecting the money.

M. Chirac makes the point that a very small tax internationally levied would be capable of having a potentially very dramatic effect. For instance, a $1 levy imposed on the sale of all airline tickets would raise $3bn (£1.6bn) a year. Yet the same justification can be made for all new taxes and rarely do they end up doing much good. Think of all the new hospitals the Government could build by putting an extra 1p in the pound on income tax. It's only a small amount, but the Government doesn't do it because it knows there are limits to the electorate's tolerance of tax and spend.

Raising more money for aid is one thing. How that aid is applied and spent raises a whole new set of concerns, particularly in the US, where the Bush administration is still sceptical of the benefits of much aid spending.

Bono, one of the most articulate and effective campaigners for action on the world stage today, insists that aid does have an immediate and dramatic effect. The number of children being educated in Uganda has tripled since Ugandan debt cancellation, he claims. Yet doubts persist about the wisdom and efficiency of much state-sponsored aid spending, particularly when unaccompanied by political and economic reform, as much African aid necessarily has to be.

There may be little point in saving people's lives if the greater longevity they are delivered into is one of misery and oppression. Poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and disease in Africa are not primarily problems of lack of capital, but of history, bad government and tribal conflict.

And so on to Topic F - the US Budget deficit. I've been coming to these meetings at Davos for some years now, and at seemingly every meeting, Stephen Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, tells participants that the US economy is about to go to hell in a handcart, dragging the rest of the world with it. Indeed it is hard to find a more convincing, articulate, and consistent proponent of the doomsday scenario.

The law of averages alone would suggest that eventually he will be right, and in fairness to Mr Roach, a growing number of economists now share his view that America's propensity to spend, and the consequent problem of runaway budget and current account deficits, might eventually result in financial and economic crisis.

One of the most alarming statistics cited here at Davos is that Americans are today saving only 1.5 per cent of their income, the lowest rate since the Great Depression. What happens when foreigners grow tired of financing these deficits, and Americans start to save again, is indeed Topic A for economists. For business, still making hay from American consumption, it is something nobody wants to think about too much. So is this to be Mr Roach's year, the year when he is finally proved right?

If it is, then I suspect Africa and climate change will be quite low on the Davos agenda next year and little progress will have been made in delivering Britain's G8 aims. Much more likely, however, is that Mr Roach will again be preaching his message of doom and gloom against the backdrop of a still strongly growing US economy.