Blair airs frustration over progress on debt relief

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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair sat down with the leaders of the Group of Seven nations in Okinawa yesterday - it becomes the G8 with the inclusion of Russia today - to discuss the troubled subject of debt relief, there were several ways in which he could have broached the matter.

When Tony Blair sat down with the leaders of the Group of Seven nations in Okinawa yesterday - it becomes the G8 with the inclusion of Russia today - to discuss the troubled subject of debt relief, there were several ways in which he could have broached the matter.

He could have made a moral appeal to the consciences of the world's richest governments - leaching away scarce resources from the poorest countries at the rate of $60m every day. He could have made the long-term practical argument that, in an already conflict-ridden and unstable world, chronic and hopeless insolvency only breeds further instability.

Instead, as a master of political presentation, he appealed to their instincts for survival - for, in the last few years, since the subject first came onto the international agenda, the unpromising subject of poor nations' debt has become a subject of urgent public concern.

Some 150,000 postcards and 100,000 e-mails on the subject have been delivered to Downing Street in the last three months alone, the Prime Minister told his fellow leaders. Four out of five of the hits on Japan's official website on the Okinawa summit have been related to the debt issue. As Mr Blair's official spokesman, Alastair Campbell - who knows a thing or two about the importance of public opinion - put it: "We simply cannot afford not to respond to the level of concern on this issue."

Indeed the ironies of the summit arrangement were starkly visible at the working dinner last night - seven well-fed men and their advisers dining on the finest foods while talking earnestly about poverty relief. But these days they seem more than ever aware that the windows are open and that, as they eat and talk, the world is looking in.

Whether the G8 will meet the expectations of the debt relief lobby, and of leaders like President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who pressed them on the issue on Thursday, is another question.

Yesterday, the signs were that no stunning new announcement was on its way, and that the final summit communiqué tomorrow will do little more than restate the good intentions outlined in last year's meeting in Cologne. But Mr Blair's words, in opening the discussion, made it clear that this is a matter of embarrassment for the G8 - and of frustration for the British Prime Minister. "He does feel," Mr Campbell acknowledged, "that we could, and should, have made further progress."

That such public pressure should be felt at this, of all G8meetings, is surprising - for the Okinawa summit was supposed to bypass it altogether. Campaign organisations have remarked sarcastically on how convenient the choice of Okinawa - a subtropical island two and a half hours' flight from Tokyo - has been for the world leaders. The distance and expense have put it out of the reach of all but the most wealthy and committed international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) - no chance here of the riotous demonstrations that marked the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle and the gathering of international finance ministers in Washington (where the anti-globalisation movement took flight).

But the power of the internet means that, even without the physical presence of thousands of angry people, the pressure is still there on poor countries' debt and on a range of emerging global issues.

In yesterday's meeting, and in a bilateral meeting with President Putin of Russia, Mr Blair also raised the issue of conflict - or 'blood' - diamonds, bought and sold from countries like Sierra Leone to the profit of brutal local warlords. Today, the G8 will discuss the battle against diseases like Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. In the developed world, the drugs to treat them are scarce only because of their high cost, a consequence of the patents taken out on them by multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Hovering in the background in Okinawa are NGOs, like Médicins Sans Frontiÿres, intent on making this the next focus of the anti-capitalism and anti-globalisation coalition.

But the issue dominating yesterday's deliberations was debt, and the G8's stark failure to deliver on the promises made at Cologne last year.

Then, the world's leaders set themselves the target of writing off $100bn of debt to 24 of the world's highly indebted poor countries (HIPCs) by the end of 2000. Seven months in they have managed to agree on $15bn to just nine of them. The goal has now slipped to 20 HIPCs by the end of the year, but even that is looking unlikely.

"The G7 claim they are speeding up the programme they agreed a year ago in Cologne," said Ann Pettifor, the British director of the debt relief campaign, Jubilee 2000. "They are not speeding up, they are only catching up. The world's leaders have retreated to this remote island, and have turned their backs on the poor, ignoring a call that is morally right, economically right, and is supported by millions around the world. This is an insult of historic proportions - to the African leaders they met in Tokyo, to the Pope, Kofi Annan, the 18 million people who have signed the Jubilee 2000 petition and the billion people living under the burden of debt."

The G7 insist that they have made progress, just not enough. "Discussion will continue," said Mr Campbell, who puts the delay down to "bureaucratic" obstacles. "We need to emphasise that the commitment remains as strong as ever." Campaigners like Jubilee 2000 counter that the project itself is flawed, and that bureaucratic inertia is built into the Cologne process.

Partly the problem has been political. Mr Blair repeated his promise to cancel all bilateral debt - but it is easier for Britain to act on this commitment, with $2,100bn of debts owed from HIPCs than, for example, Japan, with $10,500bn. The US Congress has been reluctant to vote the American share of the so-called trust fund, which will cover debts written off by multilateral organisations like the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank. But the biggest problem is poor organisation.

In order to qualify for debt relief, HIPCs must pass a series of tests to prove that the money saved will indeed go to the poor. Countries involved in wars are excluded; the others must present detailed plans to reduce poverty and demonstrate their fiscal responsibility. The government of Guyana, formerly regarded as a model HIPC citizen, made the mistake of giving into a strike and awarding its civil servants a pay rise - an act of financial indiscipline which has temporarily cost it its eligibility for debt relief.