Aid groups and other world leaders joined forces yesterday to put Silvio Berlusconi under pressure as he prepared to chair a summit of the world's richest nations in Italy.
The Italian Prime Minister was accused of planning a further cut in his country's overseas aid budget, just as Gordon Brown and other G8 leaders called on the group to honour their headline-grabbing promises to help the world's poorest nations at their landmark summit at Gleneagles four years ago.
At their three-day meeting, the G8 leaders are expected to approve a "name and shame" system so its members' progress on meeting their commitments on aid can be tracked. Although the G8 has no official figures, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the rich nations' club will fall $23bn short of its pledge at Gleneagles to raise annual aid by $50bn by next year.
The embarrassment for Mr Berlusconi is that Italy is one of the worst offenders. Despite that, Save the Children claimed yesterday that his Government has admitted it plans a further 10 per cent cut in its aid budget, on top of a 56 per cent reduction last December.
Adrian Lovett, the group's spokesman, said: "It's a disgrace. Coming from the host of the G8 this action raises serious questions about the credibility of the summit."
According to Action Aid, Italy is on course to fall $1.037bn short of its Gleneagles pledge to double financial support to Africa, while France is $1.249bn behind, Germany $497m, the United States $263m, Canada $186m and Japan $138m. Although Britain is $468m short at present, the group said it is on course to hit its target because the aid budget will rise next year.
Meredith Alexander, head of G8 policy at Action Aid, said: "The G8 can't even provide credible figures on how much aid it gives, making its promises to the world's poor hard to believe. Despite this, G8 aid to small farmers is vital to help the billion people going hungry every day. Berlusconi needs to focus on hunger in the developing world, not scandals in Sardinia."
Max Lawson, senior policy adviser at Oxfam, said: "Like a modern-day Nero, Berlusconi is fiddling while Africa burns."
Diplomats said other leaders would not indulge in "finger pointing" at Mr Berlusconi over his aid record, but admitted privately that the "name and shame" system was aimed mainly at Italy .
The summit is expected to endorse a plan by Britain and America for the G8 to set up a $15bn fund to combat hunger in poor countries over the next three years, with $1.8bn coming from Britain. It will announce an important switch from emergency relief to long-term agricultural projects which could eventually turn Africa into an exporter of food.
The change follows pressure from the Obama administration, which argues that food aid does not tackle the root causes of hunger. Mr Brown believes the time has come to move on from a "feed the world" policy to helping poor countries become self-sufficient and potential exporters.
Mr Brown will urge the other G8 leaders not to be complacent about the global economy, amid signs that the recession may not end as quickly as hoped. He will call for international action to ensure bank lending and prevent recent oil price rises stalling recovery.
Mr Berlusconi switched the meeting from Sardinia to the earthquake-hit city of L'Aquila to show solidarity with the victims. After-shocks were felt at the weekend and the leaders will stay in a training school for the Italian financial police. Agenda preparations have been described as "chaotic" by officials from other countries.
G8 summit: The agenda
Climate change Barack Obama to chair talks aimed at paving way for global agreement to cut carbon emissions in Copenhagen in December.
Economy Will review progress since London G20 summit in April, and discuss joint action to promote early and strong recovery.
Aid G8 expected to set up "name and shame" mechanism to prevent members backsliding on pledges at 2005 Gleneagles summit to double aid.
Foreign affairs G8 expected to criticise Iranian government over actions since election, including detention of nine British embassy staff.Reuse content