Max Lawson: Italy's record on foreign aid is immoral

Never mind Berlusconi's antics with young women. In slashing overseas aid, he has forgotten all about Making Poverty History

Like Gordon Brown before him, Silvio Berlusconi will be hoping for a boost to his poll ratings when he hosts world leaders in L'Aquila this week. Brown's performance at the G20 summit in London gave him respite from day-to-day political difficulties. Mr Berlusconi, meanwhile, is looking to turn the attention of his electorate back to politics. But the bad news for the Italian president is that, from where Oxfam is standing at least, the summit already looks mired in difficulties.

The decision to move the venue from the idyllic Mediterranean resort of La Maddelena to the mainland city of L'Aquila had the advantage of removing a common criticism of these summits; that they can resemble a bizarre holiday camp for world leaders with hosts attempting to outdo their predecessors' hospitality. In keeping with the harder times, leaders and their entourages have been invited by Silvio Berlusconi to stay in the local military base.

Instead of giving a sense of regimented order, this shift to the barracks has disrupted the preparations. Journalists have been waiting to discover whether there will be one press centre or two. Diplomats have been worrying about aftershocks in the city where almost 300 people died in April after an earthquake and this sense of disarray has spread into the business agenda of the summit.

When Wednesday finally arrives, Oxfam's worry is that these problems may distract from what is really missing. The UN estimates that up to 100 million more people will be pushed into poverty this year. Yet a comprehensive package of measures to help poor people struggling to come to terms with climate change, the economic crisis and rising food prices will be off the agenda.

This should not come as a surprise to those familiar with Italy's recent record. Last year Italy slashed its foreign ministry aid by a staggering 56 per cent. It is not even as if Berlusconi can claim that he is breaking promises made by others. Although he has been out of office in the meantime, in 2005 he stood alongside Tony Blair and the other world leaders in Gleneagles when they promised to "Make Poverty History"by giving an extra $50bn (£30bn) to poor countries by 2010, half of which would go to Africa.

Italy's failure to keep its promises on aid is not just immoral – it flies in the face of public opinion. A recent poll conducted for Oxfam found that 71 per cent of Italians believe they should honour Berlusconi's Gleneagles pledge.

That said, the rest of the G8 can't afford to be smug in this regard. The UK is on track to meet its Gleneagles promises but Japan and the US currently spend less on aid as a proportion of their income than Italy (although they spend more in cash terms). And France has made little progress towards meeting its aid commitments.

The money promised for bank bailouts in rich countries was 70 times the annual amount given to poor countries in aid – enough to eradicate extreme poverty for 50 years. Who said the world could not afford to tackle poverty?

It all adds to the already increasing sense that the Group of Eight is in danger of losing its way. It no longer boasts the largest economies – China is the world's second largest, India's is growing fast, and together the two countries are home to a third of the world's people. These countries need to be in the room, not just turning up for the photocalls.

To any observer the G20, although far from truly representative of the world, now seems a better forum for solving global issues. This week gives G8 leaders a chance to challenge this growing perception. An agreement by rich countries to stump up real cash – $150bn is the UN's estimate of need – to help poor people escape the floods and famines brought on by climate change they did nothing to cause (but for which the G8 members bear an historic responsibility). A concrete plan is needed to ensure that the aid promised at Gleneagles is delivered on time next year. A return to 1980s level of investment in developing country agriculture, which at $20bn was four times than it is today. All these measures would help to restore the credibility of the G8. Instead the summit threatens to descend into farce.

Progress on this agenda is urgent and an ineffective summit in Italy will mean that we have to wait until the G20 summit in September in Pittsburgh. In three months' time, many more mothers will have died unnecessarily in childbirth, many more children will have gone without school and many more families will have gone hungry after crops failed.

But given some of the suggestions coming through, a dead rubber in Italy may not necessarily be a bad thing. One of the ideas the Italians have put forward on aid is a proposal for a new way of calculating assistance to developing countries. This "whole of country approach" would add up money spent by charities and companies as well as trade flows to produce a large cash figure behind which countries such as Italy could hide their lamentable record on aid. There have even been suggestions that Italy's figure could include money spent by the Vatican.

Roman Catholicism famously offers a second chance to sinners who repent. Although Oxfam is a non-religious organisation, it may be a good time to say that we, too, believe in second chances. There is still time before this week's summit for Italy's leader to table a real rescue plan for Africa – one that will help poor people escape the worst effect of climate change, the economic crisis and rising food prices.

Go on, Silvio, surprise us.

Max Lawson is Oxfam's senior policy adviser