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Empty promises

July 01, 2006

IS A PROMISE WORTH ANYTHING if there are no consequences to breaking it? That's a question worth pondering as we near the one-year anniversary of the Group of 8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.

Gleneagles was not an ordinary powwow for the club of industrialized nations. It came amid an unprecedented international campaign under the slogan "Make Poverty History," complete with Live Aid rock concerts and a drive by leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair to persuade wealthy countries to boost their aid to Africa. It all paid off, or so it seemed. Rich nations signed a historic pact to forgive the debts of some of the world's most impoverished countries, and at the summit they vowed to double aid to Africa by 2010 and work toward ending the damaging subsidies and tariffs that strangle Third World economies.

A year later, the Gleneagles promises are already starting to look hollow. The debt-relief agreement has largely been a success, but G-8 countries are far off track on their aid commitments and even further from a comprehensive trade deal.

In 2005, the same year they made their pledge, G-8 countries increased their aid to sub-Saharan Africa by $1.6 billion, according to a report by DATA, the poverty-awareness organization founded by rock star Bono. But to get on track to meet their summit pledge, a boost of more than $3 billion would have been in order. Some countries are bigger laggards than others. Italy made a whopping promise at Gleneagles, committing to increase African aid from $1.2 billion in 2004 to $5.5 billion in 2010 -- yet in 2005, it gave only an additional $26 million. That's at least better than Germany, which actually reduced aid to Africa last year.

Of course, most countries had already passed their 2005 budgets before the Gleneagles summit; the numbers from 2006 will be a better indicator of their seriousness. The United States, at least, is poised for a healthy increase in aid to Africa this year, mostly via the president's bilateral AIDS initiative.

On the trade front, the G-8 countries committed to eliminate all export subsidies, cut other domestic supports and improve access to their markets for poor countries. All this was supposed to be accomplished by the World Trade Organization during its Doha round of talks. Doha is desperately, perhaps fatally, stalled. Trade ministers started a new session Thursday in Geneva with the hope of reaching a deal by July 31, but the key players are miles apart.

DATA vows annual updates on progress toward the G-8 goals, but its reach is limited. What's needed is a high-level panel to monitor G-8 members and loudly embarrass nations that don't live up to their commitments. The world has had enough empty promises; the poor need genuine action.

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