Berlusconi boosts Blair's world tour with promise of more aid for Africa

Tony Blair appears to have secured the support of his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi on providing more aid to Africa and making headway against global warming ahead of this summer's G8 summit to be hosted by Britain at Gleneagles in July.

Mr Berlusconi offered his vocal, if vague, backing to the proposal to double aid to Africa following talks between the two men yesterday at the Italian Prime Minister's palatial headquarters.

"I understand the whole purpose is to arrive at some concrete, tangible outcomes with respect to both Africa and climate change. I have assured Mr Blair of my personal support and my country's support in favour of what I know is going to be a very reasonable, sound and viable set of proposals."

Mr Blair said: "We have found ourselves, as many times before, in agreement on all the key issues."

He is likely to find greater obstacles to agreement in Moscow and Washington, which he visits next month in pursuit of support for plans which, if successful, would replace his present lame-duck problems with the glow of enduring legacy. His pre-G8 swing will also take him to Paris and Berlin.

France, Japan and the US have all indicated that they prefer to back their own pet proposals for Africa. Mr Blair may have better luck in Berlin, where Gerhard Schröder is thought to be in the market for strong, left-pleasing themes for his autumn election campaign.

The British Prime Minister was too diplomatic to draw attention to the fact that Italian aid to Africa, which Italy has pledged would be raised to 0.33 per cent of gross national income by 2006, is today less than half that, having plummeted in the past two years.

But across town in Rome's city hall at a meeting following up on Blair's Africa Commission, which produced the initiatives Mr Blair is promoting, the commission member Bob Geldof was less considerate of his Italian hosts' feelings.

He said: "Italy's current level of aid is a disgrace. It's the sixth richest country in the world, but it's the meanest of them all in giving aid. Even small nations like Portugal and the Netherlands give more in absolute terms. The United States used to give the lowest percentage of its national income of any country, but now Italy has overtaken even them."

Mr Berlusconi, however, rejected the notion that Italy was not pulling its weight on Africa, and pointed out that Italian peacekeepers were active in many war zones around the world.

Tony Blair later told a meeting on African aid: "What's happening in Africa today, if it happened in any other country, would provoke outrage and create an immense, sustained pressure on the leaders of the world to act.

"It cannot be morally right that so many people die when they need not. It's a very big mistake for our world at the beginning of this century.

"Britain has recently trebled our aid to Africa, much of it goes into supporting African governments to reform. When people today are cynical about politics, for reasons I understand, and ask where are the big causes in the world, I say here is the biggest."

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