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General News Thu, 10 Jun 2004

G8 fails to write off Africa's debt, but

...promises help for Aids vaccine

The leading industrial powers plan to help Africa by developing an anti-AIDS vaccine and training thousands of new peacekeepers -- but did not come up with the hoped for breakthough on forgiving debt for the world's very poorest countries, almost all of them in Africa.

The announcements came as part of a so-called "Africa Outreach," at the final session of the G8 summit, attended by six African heads of government.

But for all its outward cordiality, the three days of talks at the exclusive Sea Island resort south of here failed to produce any spectacular new agreements to boost host President George W. Bush in his campaign for re-election this autumn.

Indeed if the White House was expecting any lift from the summit, and from the deal on the June 30 transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, those hopes were dashed by a new opinion poll yesterday showing John Kerry ahead by 51-44. The margin is among the biggest yet for his Democratic challenger in November, one of his biggest leads yet.

To further the battle against AIDS, now killing 6,300 people in Africa every day, the US is to contribute $15m to a world wide drive to speed up development for a new vaccine against the disease.

At the same time, the G-8 is launching a multi-year scheme to train African troops for peacekeeping missions in the continent. The aim is to have 75,000 troops trained by 2010. Britain's contribution to the project will rise to $12m annually when the scheme is in full swing.

But even among Africans the 'Outreach' caused mixed feelings.

"We can expect to be portrayed in some quarters as mendicants," President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa said in a newspaper interview published yesterday.

Mr Mbeki was one of six African leaders on Sea Island yesterday, along with the Presidents of Nigeria, Algeria, Uganda, Ghana and Senegal.

Nor could the summit come up with the debt relief package for which NGOs and aid groups were hoping, involving a 100 per cent cancellation of multilateral debt owed by the HIPC group of Highly Indebted Poor Countries, and the conversion of all borrowings into outright grants.

Almost every HIPC country is in Africa -- many of them in sub-Saharan Africa where real per capita income has actually fallen in the last 30 years.

Instead, the G-8 has merely approved a 'top-up' of funding for the existing scheme to help the HIPC countries, and a two year extension to December 2006 of the period in which the poorest countries can apply for assistance under the scheme.

Total cancellation of official debt to the HIPC countries has been strongly backed by Britain. But it appears to have run into continuing objections from Japan and Germany and fallen foul of the argument raging over precisely how much of Iraq's Saddam-era debt of $120bn should be forgiven.

The US and Britain had been pressing for virtually total cancellation of Iraqi debt - but France insists that Iraq, with its oil riches, should not be treated any more favourably than the poorest third world nations.

As a result both initiatives have stalled, temporarily at least, to the dismay of the NGOs.

Total debt of the 42 poorest and most indebted countries totalled $35bn, Irungu Houghton, an Oxfam International spokesman said. "if G-8 leaders are willing to write off $90bn for Iraq, why not a third of that for Africa?"

British officials however were optimistic that an African debt reduction deal could be reached.

The issue will be further discussed by finance ministers, setting the stage -- ideally -- for a final agreement at next year's G-8 summit, to be hosted by Britain at Gleneagles, Scotland.

That could provide the sort of success for Tony Blair as Mr Bush was looking for here, in a show of unity among allies to give the lie to Democratic charges that with his stubbornness, he has needlessly alienated international partners of the US.

Unfortunately for him, precisely that opinion is taking hold among voters, the poll in the Los Angeles Times showed that by a massive 58 per cent to 16 per cent, those surveyed believed that Mr Bush, rather than Mr Kerry, is "too ideological and stubborn."
Source: INDEPENDENT