G8 pledges $20bn farm aid to poor nations

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G8 leaders pledged $20 billion in farm aid to help poor nations feed themselves, surpassing expectations on the final day of a summit that has yielded little progress on climate change and trade.

The United States used the meeting of world leaders to push for a shift towards farm investment aid from food aid and will make $3.5 billion available to the 3-year programme. But African nations reminded the rich of a need to honour past commitments.

"Working with the G8, African and European countries and multinational bodies, we had the satisfaction of increasing the $15 billion to $20 billion over three years," said Italian President Silvio Berlsuconi.

The United Nations says the number of malnourished people has risen over the past two years and is expected to top 1.02 billion this year, reversing a four-decade trend of declines.

"$20 billion was a last-minute agreement and it was greeted with great happiness by all of us in the conference room. While we are rebuilding agriculture we need to continue supporting food assistance because the financial crisis is pushing another 103 million people into hunger this year," said Staffan de Mistura, vice executive director of the World Food Programme.

After two days of talks focused on the economic crisis, trade and global warming, the final day of the meeting in Italy looked at problems facing the poorest nations.

G8 leaders promised in Gleneagles in 2005 to increase annual aid by $50 billion by 2010, half of which was meant for African countries. But aid bodies say some G8 countries have gone back on their word, especially this year's G8 host, Italy.

African leaders said they would voice their concerns, with Ethiopian premier Meles Zenawi telling Reuters: "The key message for us is to ask the G8 to live up to their commitments."

Besides Meles, the leaders of Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa joined their G8 counterparts to discuss food security and farming, and to push their demand for compensation for the ravages of climate change.

It was not clear how much of the $20 billion was new funding and how much each country would give.

The focus on agricultural investments reflects a U.S.-led shift away from emergency aid assistance towards longer-term strategies to try to make communities more self-sufficient.

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade told Reuters that Barack Obama, who will make his first visit to Africa as U.S. president after the G8, brought a welcome new focus on African farming.

Wade, who has championed efforts to increase agriculture in his West African country, which relies heavily on food imports, said Obama "really has the will to focus on food in Africa".

"The United States produces maize and some crops and sends it to people in famine, but the new conception is to produce these crops in Africa and not in the United States," Wade said.

The $20 billion over three years may compare unfavourably with the $13.4 billion the G8 says it has already disbursed between January 2008 and July 2009, but aid groups said the funds pledged on Friday were more clearly focused.

British charity ActionAid has warned that, with one billion hungry, decisions at the G8 could "literally make the difference between life and death for millions in the developing world".

Japan and the European Union were championing a code of conduct for responsible investment in the face of growing farmland acquisition or "land grabs" in emerging nations.

The l'Aquila summit has produced chequered results on other issues, making only limited progress in crucial climate talks following the refusal by major developing nations to sign up to the goal of halving world greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

"There is a bit of frustration because one would like to convince everyone about everything and obtain all the results straight way, but things are progressing," French President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters late on Thursday.

G8 leaders said the global financial crisis still posed serious risks to the world economy. Further stimulus packages for growth might still be required and it was dangerous to implement "exit strategies" from emergency measures too early.

"Reaching the bottom of the slump is not when you start with exit strategies. We need to choose a point where we've already got some way out of the trough," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday.

She dismissed a Chinese proposal, aired at the summit, for debate on seeking an alternative global reserve currency to the dollar in the long term as something that was not of "practical relevance" for the time being.