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  • A disappointing summit — again!


Although the problems of the developing world — in particular Africa — were on the agenda at last week's G8 summit meeting, they failed to get the attention that they deserve. Next year, G8 leaders will have an opportunity do better.

The war in Iraq claimed another victim last week: a bid to persuade heads of the world's eight leading industrial nations to eliminate the crippling debts faced by developing countries. This time, ironically, neither the United States nor the United Kingdom were directly to blame. Both sides had arrived at the latest annual summit of the so-called G8 nations indicating that they were prepared to support such a move. Its wider endorsement would have been a major victory for campaigners who, for several years, have seen this as the most important step that rich countries could take to allow poor countries to pull themselves out of a chronic state of underdevelopment.

The problem was that neither France nor Germany was prepared to go along. Both countries protested that the largest beneficiary of such a move would be Iraq. This was based on US arguments, backed by Britain, that Iraq should be let off the hook for $90 billion of debt run up by its former leader, Saddam Hussein. The political costs of such a write-off were too much for France and Germany, which had both strongly opposed the US-led invasion of the country.

Their argument has substantial merit. One of the more depressing legacies of the Iraq invasion is the way that it has skewed US and UK aid policies. Both countries have agreed to allocate substantial funding to the reconstruction of the country. But this has meant deflecting foreign aid funds that would otherwise have been distributed much more widely across the developing world. And this includes funds that could have been spent on scientific infrastructure and capacity building.

Positive outcomes

Admittedly the G8 summit meeting, which was held in the resort of Sea Island, on the east coast of the United States, was not totally unproductive for the developing world. For example, the countries whose leaders were participating agreed to extend by two years an initiative to relieve the debt burden on the world's most impoverished countries the so-called Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

This initiative was established eight years go, and so far about one third of the $100 billion owed by these countries, 27 out of 31 of which are in Africa, has been cancelled. The extension has been welcomed by those who had been nervous that the arrangement might have been brought to an end, even if only as a consolation prize for not achieving total debt write-off.

Furthermore, there were several initiatives announced at Sea Island that could if successful have a direct impact on improving the lives of those in the developing world. One was a scheme, strongly backed by the United States, to train and equip a force of 75,000 peacekeepers to bring security to countries locked in political conflict, particularly in Africa. Given that peace and social stability are widely recognised as a prerequisite of social and economic development, any effort to achieve such a goal should be applauded — with the caveat that it is essential that adequate steps be taken to ensure that this intervention force does not itself become used for political purposes.

Another move that could benefit the lives of millions around the world was the G8 leaders' endorsement of a decision, again promoted primarily by the United States, to create a Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise to accelerate scientific efforts to defeat HIV/AIDS. First put forward by an international group of scientists (see The need for a global HIV vaccine enterprise), the initiative is being compared to the collaborative approach that was used so successfully in sequencing the human genome.

High on the agenda of the new enterprise is the need to prioritise the scientific challenges that need to be addressed if a successful vaccine is to be developed and to fill the gaps in knowledge that currently prevent the achievement of this goal.

Voices from Africa

Given the agreement reached on the above topics, it would clearly be wrong to argue that no steps were taken at Sea Island to address the needs of the world's poor. Nor can it be claimed that the world's leaders were entirely deaf to those who presented such needs to them. Much was made of the fact that the leaders of six African nations Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda were invited to address the meeting, and to set out their perspectives on their region's needs.

Some used the opportunity not only to present the case for debt relief, but also to offer broader reflections on the reasons for the failure of current aid policies. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, for example, the president of Uganda, stressed that the long-term solution to the lack of development in Africa could only be found in improved and fairer trade relations with the industrialised world.

Others were more specific in their demands. Adboulay Wade of Senegal, a leading voice within the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), came to the meeting with a list of specific proposals on where the aid policies of the rich countries should be focussed. One suggestion, for example, was for an agreement to eliminate all 'hush money' in internationally-funded aid projects. Another was for a deliberate campaign to initiate what he called a "counter brain-drain".

Aid as investment

What united the African voices at the G8 summit was a conviction that aid should be seen not as a handout from the rich to the poor, but as an investment by the global community. Although not explicitly stated, support for developing country activities in science and technology comes squarely into this category. Gone, hopefully, are the days of when the most effective strategy in this area was seen as primarily transmitting the fruits of Western science for consumption by the rest of the world.

Today, it is widely recognised that, just as in the broader economic sphere, the most effective aid is that which allows poor countries to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. This may, of course, still mean gaining access to Western science and technology (witness the recent explosion in the use of mobile telephones). But, just as importantly, it also means developing their own scientific and technological capacity.

The G8 leaders will have an excellent opportunity to address these issues when they meet again next year in Scotland. The problems of Africa are already firmly fixed on the agenda here. This is partly because the meeting is due to hear a report, requested two years ago at the Kananaskis G8 Summit, on progress with NEPAD. And partly because of the personal interest in this area which has been expressed by British prime minister Tony Blair.

The challenge ahead

A key focal point for this meeting and thus for preparations over the next 12 months will be plans that are being drawn up by a group of countries, spearheaded by Britain, for an International Financing Initiative. The idea is to seek to use public foreign aid money to 'leverage' funding from other sources, including the private sector; UK officials have estimated said that, if successful, such a strategy could lead to a doubling of the total amount of money spent on aid efforts.

It is essential that plans for such an initiative incorporate a concern for science and technology at their core. Every industrialised country now recognises the need to pay adequate attention to these issues, both in economic and social planning. The first refers to the need for adequate policies and funding to secure the science and technology a country needs; the second to ensure both activities become embedded in a country's infrastructure in a way that is compatible with the needs and interests of its people.

The needs of developing countries are, at root, no different. The danger inherent in the way that decisions were presented in Sea Island is that, while promoting the first, the second may be ignored. The difficult task is ensuring a proper balance between the two. This is the real challenge for Africa's leaders (already being addressed, for example, through NEPAD). It is also, therefore, a challenge facing those preparing for next year's meeting. These now have the opportunity and to make up for a failure of G8 summits to tackle such issues adequately in the past.

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