Leading article: The rich world must be held to its promises

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The latest figures published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development should alarm anyone who cares about the plight of Africa. While aid payments to the developing world rose by a healthy 30 per cent in 2005, these figures show that such donations fell back last year.

The Italian contribution to world aid budgets has been especially poor. Germany's has been unimpressive. Aid from Japan fell by almost 10 per cent. And donations from the world's largest economy, the United States, fell by 20 per cent. Overall, the rich countries' governmental aid to the poorest nations totalled $103.9bn (£52.6bn) in 2006, down from $106.8bn in 2005. This represents the first drop in aid payments in real terms since 1997.

Looking at these figures, it is disturbing to recall that it is only two years since world leaders gathered in Gleneagles to promise a doubling of aid to Africa by 2010. At that time, Bob Geldof, the organiser of the Live 8 campaign, declared: "Never before have so many people forced a change of policy on to a global agenda." He went on to argue that the deal would save the lives of 10 million people in Africa. But such results were always contingent on delivery of the funds. And, at the moment, the rich world is very far from delivering.

The world's richest nations are also falling some way short of their commitments under the Millennium Development Goals to devote 0.7 per cent of their gross national incomes to international aid each year. Only Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark are doing so. Worse, Germany, Italy and the US have no plans to meet this target. This is inexcusable. Such sums are hardly unaffordable. To put the 0.7 per cent in context, the US spends six times more on its annual military budget.

We must be wary of excuses. The OECD says the decline in aid donations last year was to be expected after the exceptionally high support given by the rich world in 2005. This is unconvincing. No one signed up at Gleneagles to a deal in which there would be an aid splurge for one year, and in which business as usual would return the next. Meanwhile, the argument that "aid does not work" is still heard. If anything, the voices arguing that intergovernmental cash transfers merely feed corruption in the developing world and fail to reach the very poorest are growing louder. This is dangerous. Where would Europe be now were it not for the post-war Marshall Plan? The developed world needs the same sort of sustained funding if it is to catch up. And this means there must be a step change in aid donations from the rich world.

There are some bright spots among these figures. Last year the UK aid budget rose by 13.1 per cent. It now accounts for 0.47 per cent of Britain's national income. This represents a considerable achievement, given the low aid levels throughout the 1980s. Also, aid from the EU member states rose 2.7 per cent in 2006 to more than $59bn. Aid now represents 0.42 per cent of the EU's gross national income. These figures are moving in the right direction. And this gives Europe the moral authority to persuade the rest of the world to follow its example. The Gleneagles agenda must not be allowed to stagnate. When the G8 leaders meet this summer in Berlin they must explain how they will get back on track.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan will return to Gleneagles tomorrow to speak at a conference on eradicating global poverty. It is increasingly clear that the biggest obstacle to this worthy objective is getting the rich world to keep its promises.

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