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G8 leaders back off 0.7% foreign-aid target

The promise by rich countries to devote 0.7 per cent of their national earnings to foreign aid, first proposed by Canada in 1969, has essentially fallen off the agenda at this week's G8 summit in Scotland because of a lack of commitment and interest, observers and organizers said yesterday.

Instead, the leaders of the world's wealthiest democracies have decided to adopt the lesser pledge of doubling aid to Africa by 2010, Canadian and British officials said. This was partly to save face and to create the appearance of consensus, but also because the pledge to devote 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product to foreign aid became unpopular among many groups.

Some of the groups behind the campaign to end African poverty -- whose year of political victories included last weekend's Live 8 concerts and the April pledge by leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations to eliminate all foreign debt for the world's poorest countries -- said they were infuriated by the abandonment of what they consider a crucial step toward lifting Africa out of destitution.

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"We think the pledge is extremely important, particularly in Canada's case because it was Canada's idea originally," said Mark Fried of the charity Oxfam, which has led the call for a long-term increase in aid.

"If you can't get a real commitment like this, it doesn't mean much. Canada dropping this would be a real failure -- we've got a long way to go before we're anything like a world leader on the aid file, which is still crucial to making anything improve."

While a few northern European countries devote 0.7 per cent or more of GDP to aid, and European countries including Germany and Britain have pledged to do so by 2015, Canada, Japan and the United States have refused to make such a commitment.

Canada devotes 0.26 per cent of its GDP to aid, and the average of rich countries gives 0.4. Finance Minister Ralph Goodale has said that the tax burden of raising aid to 0.7 per cent would be unacceptable, even though Canada is the only G8 member country with a strong economy and a budget surplus.

Instead, Canada will stick to its pledge to increase aid to Africa to $2.8-billion by 2008, double the 2004 level. With similar pledges made by other countries, the leaders can say they have doubled foreign-aid spending.

"What I anticipate is that the text will reflect what we each in our own way have characterized our emphasis on Africa as," a senior Canadian official said yesterday at a briefing in Dublin, where Prime Minister Paul Martin was meeting leaders in advance of the summit. "In our case, it's the doubling between 2003-04 and 2008-09. Others will characterize their commitments similarly, and that cumulatively, that would reflect a doubling of aid."

On one hand, the 0.7-per-cent pledge appears to have been abandoned because there was no possibility of a consensus.

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"There's no consensus among the G8 with respect to 0.7," said another senior Canadian government official. "Some nations say that they will go there and they will go there by 2015. Other nations aren't willing to make that commitment. In [Canada's]case we are committed to the 0.7, but we aren't committed to 2015. So in that world where there's no consensus, we have to ask ourselves what is a practical benefit that can flow from these discussions."

But there was also a growing sense among G8 organizers, and among some anti-poverty campaigners and prominent Africans, that the 0.7 pledge had never been a good idea.

"You're not going to get a hard commitment from the Gleneagles G8 summit about the 0.7 pledge, because I don't think anyone cares about that any more," said John Kirton, director of the Toronto-based G8 Research Group, a think tank affiliated with the University of Toronto, that monitors G8 summits.

"Over the past few days the emphasis has really gone off that bumper-sticker slogan. They've realized that it's a really dumb number for about eight reasons."

His view was echoed by some of the Africans who sat on the Commission for Africa, the British group whose work led to the African agenda at this year's summit.

"There has been too much emphasis on aid. It's insulting to suggest that we are sitting here with a begging bowl -- we know how to have an economy, and if we could only operate on a level playing field then we could take care of ourselves," said Tidjane Thiam, an Ivory Coast executive from the Aviva Corp. who was appointed to the Commission for Africa by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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