Outlook: G7 divided as ever

GORDON BROWN is a politician, so he's bound to put the most positive gloss he can on international reaction to his various initiatives on African poverty. There he was at the World Economic Forum in Davos a week ago claiming that Germany and France had swung full square behind his international finance facility (IFF) for the doubling of aid to Africa. The G7 meeting in London last weekend was meanwhile hailed by the Chancellor as another breakthrough that would go down in history as the "100 per cent debt write-off summit".

The reality, I regret to say, is a good deal less upbeat. There's no consensus on debt relief, and there is no agreement on the IFF. Germany has so far backed only a quite limited pilot version of the IFF that would roll out an extended vaccination programme. It remains concerned about how a wider IFF, which seeks to boost short-term aid by borrowing against future aid budgets, would ultimately be paid for. France, which has backed the IFF in principle, has expressed similar concerns. Jacques Chirac's proposed solution - an international tax on airline tickets, emissions and global capital flows - would be vehemently opposed by the US, while even Britain has doubts about the practicality of such a tax and the sovereignty issues it raises.

There is more momentum on debt relief, but even here there are deep divisions. Japan favours only selective debt relief, America backs the write-off of World Bank loans but has doubts about the Chancellor's plan to finance this out of sales or revaluations of IMF gold. The US in any case has its own goals and plans for addressing African policy and as with much else, seems generally disinclined to engage in multilateral efforts.

The upshot is that there's a country mile to go before Britain can proclaim the breakthrough it hopes to achieve in its presidency year for the G8. I take no pleasure in pointing out the chasm that still exists between the Chancellor's aspirations and the underlying reality. This is a deeply depressing state of affairs, for while the world's wealthiest nations squabble over how poverty should be tackled, more will die who could have been saved.

Yet these divisions are just the subtext for much wider concerns about the giving of aid to the Third World. In large parts of sub-saharan Africa the problem is not so much lack of capital as bad and corrupt government. Aid and debt relief delivered to such regimes would be largely money down the drain and, if it helped perpetuate illegitimate government, then it could be seen as positively harmful.

First things first, Mr Brown would say. Let's get agreement for a Marshall plan for Africa first. We can argue about how it is spent, and under what conditions, later on. Well maybe, but if it wasn't already apparent, it certainly is after last weekend's antics: multilateral efforts to help Africa remain as much of an uphill struggle as ever, notwithstanding the galvanising effect of the tsunami.