Leading article: Failures that have kept poverty in the present


This was the year when Tony Blair had hoped to turn the world's attention to Africa as a prelude to making poverty history. And it is true that, largely thanks to his efforts, the continent was higher up the international agenda than it has ever been. The results, however, were only a little short of disappointing.

Hopes were high at the start. The report of Mr Blair's Commission for Africa was a promising beginning. It was serious in tone, and specific. It called for the amount of aid donated to Africa annually to be doubled. It wanted the debts of the poorest to be written off and for aid not to be used as a political vehicle to accelerate the march to the free market. It also called for a date to be set by which the rich countries would end the farm subsidies which are seen by the poor as an unjust brake on their development.

By the time of the G8 summit at Gleneagles, where Africa policy was to be the centrepiece, deals had been struck that represented progress. More than half of the Africa Commission's recommendations were adopted. Annual aid levels were to be doubled. Debts owed by the world's poorest countries to the IMF, the World Bank and the African Development Bank were to be written off. Bob Geldof, who had revived the successful LiveAid concept 20 years on as Live8 and timed the globally broadcast concerts to dovetail with the end of the G8 summit, gave Gleneagles 10 out of 10 for aid and eight out of 10 for debt. Showman that he is, he claimed much of the credit for shaming the rich world into giving. And, while he was not entirely wrong, he set a tone of complacency that was to prove a liability.

It is clear with hindsight that the conjunction of Gleneagles and Live8 represented not only the climax of the Make Poverty History campaign but also the point at which many boasts of good intentions started to ring hollow. Increasingly, it turns out that the more sceptical charities may have been right when they warned that some of the aid commitments had been double-counted and that the debt relief had too many conditions attached to have the desired effect.

They were also right in warning that upbeat assessment of Gleneagles, encouraged by Geldof and exploited by the politicians, could lead governments to rest on their laurels. The extremely modest results of the Hong Kong WTO meeting, which postponed most of the difficult decisions on agriculture subsidies, may have been one result. The need for better governance in many African countries also got lost somewhere en route.

Worse, as we report today, hardly any of the pledges announced at Gleneagles have yet translated into real money. Awareness of Africa's need was raised around the world, but help has not materialised. No details have emerged of the debt cancellation plan. No date has been set for the abolition of trade subsidies that make it so hard for produce from poor countries to penetrate the markets of the rich. And finance ministers are backtracking on their countries' commitment to double aid for Africa by 2010. Poverty has not been made history.

As Richard Dowden notes elsewhere in our pages, the greatest boon for many African countries over the past year has had little to do with aid from outside. It has been the rise in world commodities prices. This trend will continue. But it does not absolve the rich countries, Britain included, from honouring the promises they have made. Simple justice demands that unfair trade regimes must be abolished, and there are countries which will need foreign aid for years to come. The best way to prevent this Year of Africa from ending on a dispiriting note is for the G8 to renew the commitments made at Gleneagles - and ensure they are kept.

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