Western powers pledge £4bn for Africa

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The world's richest countries laid out their much-heralded action plan for Africa yesterday, including more financial aid and help with peace-keeping.

The world's richest countries laid out their much-heralded action plan for Africa yesterday, including more financial aid and help with peace-keeping.

But the package fell far short of what many experts believe is necessary to help to develop the continent. Under the scheme approved by G8 leaders at the close of their two-day summit here, the eight member states ­ America, Italy, Britain, Japan, Canada, France, Germany and Russia ­ will pledge $6bn (£4bn) extra aid a year to Africa "if Africa meets its end of the bargain", as Tony Blair put it. "We are going to help Africa help itself," he declared.

Africa's part of the deal was set out to the G8 leaders by the presidents of Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa, who had travelled to the secluded Rocky Mountain resort for the summit. Their plan, Nepad (New Partnership for Africa's Development) commits Africa to guaranteeing the peace and stable rule essential if help from the West is to bear fruit.

Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian secretary general of the United Nations, declared the outcome could be "a turning point in the history of Africa and indeed the world", if both sides did as promised. But the gap between what is needed and what is on offer remains huge, and Nigeria's President, Olesegun Obasanjo, said the understanding was no more than a starting point.

The 10-year Nepad programme was conceived to bridge an "investment gap" of $64bn (£42bn) a year that has to be filled if Africa is to rejoin the economic mainstream and break out of its vicious circle of war, disease, poverty, instability and conflict.

But even before the meeting had ended, Oxfam called it "a wasted opportunity". What was on offer was "peanuts, and repackaged peanuts at that", said the relief agency's director, Phil Twyford.

Whatever emerges is unlikely to match the scale of Africa's plight. Half the continent's 300 million people live on less than 60 pence a day, while wars, poverty and the Aids epidemic combine to drive even lower an average life expectancy that is already only 48 years. Aid in real terms fell 40 per cent between 1990 and 1999. The new money would only bring assistance back to the level of a decade ago.

The $1bn (£650m) top-up of debt relief announced for the most heavily indebted countries -- almost all in sub-Saharan Africa-- illustrates the divide. Though welcoming the extra help, development specialists noted that the sum was little more than double the $400m that Canada is estimated to have spent on the summit.

By next year, the G8 states and Africa aim to have a mechanism to identify peace-keeping requirements, focusing first on three of the most strife-hit countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Sudan. Again though, the details remain to be settled through "contact groups" that have yet to be set up.

The G8 is also pledging help with education and to eradicate polio from Africa by 2005. But no new money has been allocated to fight Aids, the real scourge of the continent. Instead, officials pointed to bilateral aid, including $200m recently earmarked by the US.

The mixed outcome of the summit reflects differences within the G8. Keenest on a sustained long-term plan are the Europeans, led by Britain and France. But Japan, gripped by a long economic crisis, is reluctant to divert money to Africa, while America believes aid is all too often wasted, and that voluntary private investment is far sounder.

British officials stressed the scheme could only work as a partnership. There would be a "significant increase" in money going to Africa, they said, "but this is a matter of working with Africa, not of the G8 imposing its views on Africa".

The richest countries have promised to open their markets to African goods by lowering trade barriers. But the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy continues, while America has announced a $190bn 10-year subsidy for its farmers, which will mean more cheap surpluses, against which African producers cannot compete.