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Let Us See if Italy Keeps Faith With the World's Poor

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Yesterday in London I helped the ONE campaign launch their 4th annual DATA Report. The report is an exercise in accountability. It charts a course from past development aid promises to present delivery. In 2005, the G8 made a series of historic promises to Africa that, if achieved would improve health, access education, reduce poverty and increase prosperity. The headlines of these promises were to double aid to Africa by 2010, to improve its quality, to reform the trade system to make it easier for Africans to export to our markets, and to cancel debts that were preventing African governments from investing in their people. All this was promised on the basis of a deal with the African states in exchange for measurable indices of good governance and tighter economic achievement.

Let me contextualize this report and this event. The panel consisted of Arunmah Oteh and Dr. Francois Ndayishimiye from two of the great world development and health institutions, The African Development Bank and The Global Fund for Aids, Malaria and TB. Also present was that "turbulent priest", that little giant Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the greatest and bravest moral arbiter of our time. Then came our greatest industrialist, our Carnegie, our Rockefeller -- Bill Gates. And finally the inevitable Irish pop singer, no not the very famous short one -- the other somewhat less famous tall one. Me.

When Tutu speaks one listens. He talks of the idealistic imperative we have to other human beings. He asks what obligations do we have as a society to those we will never know or never see? He asked the audience to imagine just one person on the brink of death because of AIDS. He asked us to put a face on that person of someone we know. Then he said imagine only one month later going back to that person and seeing them begin the long agonizing haul to Life again. This is the Lazarus-like miracle of Anti-Retroviral drugs. Now imagine that person and then times it by 3 million... because that's how many people in Africa are today, this minute, receiving free AIDS treatment because of effective aid. A mere 6 years ago only 50,000 had to pay the pittance they had for whatever drugs were available. Those, the majority, with no money, simply died, leaving both the very old and the very young as orphans. Tutu's point is that humans are not only extraordinary creatures but that Aid, that beautiful instrument of humanity, is a working miracle in itself.

And, why would the person who is the driver of modern technology and therefore the modern economy devote the rest of his life and his fortune to fulfilling that obligation? Because Bill Gates is an empiricist and the condition of poverty, or at least many aspects of it, is empirical. It can be measured. And it can be removed. And in not removing it we are not only abandoning our societal obligation, we are also being criminally economically self-defeating.

Poverty must go. Without removing it, we will not have a stable world. The global financial architecture collapsed and now must be rebuilt. One of the reasons this was a failure of the system rather than simply within it was because 50% of the planet, those who live on less than $2 per day, were excluded from it. You cannot live on less than $2 a day. What is more, by excluding them from the world economy, we excluded their creativity, their dynamism, their intellect, their ideas and their productivity. We did great damage to ourselves in doing so.

We mustn't make the same mistake again as we rebuild a newer world economy. We must include the peripheral peoples in the marginal economies, we must include Africa and Africans if only so that they can buy our stuff and we can buy theirs. And then, as happens anywhere else, the aid question disappears..

We are not there yet. So, for now, aid stabilizes the poor of this world at a base level. It manages sometimes to get to some people so that they get to stay alive with a little bit of food, so they get to stay alive with a little bit of medicine, and so they get a little bit of education. Then with a coherent state they can begin to get going. And to help with that, we look primarily to the G7 -- the world's richest economies, the countries of plenty.

So, how are they doing?

The United States, Canada and Japan are meeting or beating modest targets. This group includes last year's G8 hosts and next year's G8 host. Though their targets were less ambitious than those of the European members of the G8, they have legitimacy because they are meeting them.

The UK and Germany made very ambitious promises and have made great strides towards meeting those promises. Though they are both currently a bit behind in their progress, both Gordon Brown of Labour and David Cameron of the Conservatives in the UK have said they are committed to meeting this promise and have budgeted for the committed aid increases. This in a time of domestic hardship is politically brave and indeed honorable but it is also good, sound political sense. Germany has made budget provisions for continued significant and laudable increases, but will unfortunately probably just fall short of their target.

Despite some key investments from France in global health programs, France has made little progress towards its ambitious promise. This is pathetic given France's economic, cultural and historic links with Africa. Indeed it is so pathetic Germany has overtaken France in its economic co-operation with Africa for the first time ever.

And then there's Italy, this year's G8 host. Last year's host kept their promise; next year's host has kept theirs. But Italy has only done 3% of what Prime Minister Berlusconi personally and nationally promised in 2005. I'll repeat that figure of craven dishonesty -- 3%! So it is quite proper to ask -- what legitimacy does Italy have to run the G8 this year? How can you possibly trust a government that promises something, does nothing and expects to the lead the world's biggest economies? Especially when this promise was a solemn one between the rich and the poor. Between the powerful and the weak. Surely a test of power is how it cares for the frail. A measure of strength is how it safeguards the weak. In these tests Italy has failed.

On debt cancellation, the G8 are largely making good, thus enabling 34 million children to go to school for the first time ever. That's 34 million new brains actively engaged with our world. However the current financial crisis may give rise to a newer debt problem. This needs to be avoided.

Of course everyone knows that it is only through trade that economies can thrive and give a life to its people. The good economy and the good society go side by side. But on their commitment "to make trade work for Africa," they are an utter failure. Though African exports have increased in recent years, it is not because of policy changes by the G8, but because of spikes in commodity prices including oil and food. Africa still only accounts for 3.5% of global trade, the smallest share of any region in the world. And yet the African economy is the 10th largest in the world. It is bigger than Brazil or India or Mexico or Russia. Indeed the only emerging economy greater than Africa's is China. Of course because its Africa nobody knows this or thinks about it. Nuts.

This group was not assembled yesterday because some (Irish) pop stars decided aid is cool. But it is. Cool Aid. We were together because there is a profound logic and a compelling imperative about meeting these G8 commitments. Unless we bring the marginal peoples and their economies into the core of the world economy, into the center of the decision making process, whatever new system we build out of the ashes of this failed one will once again be asymmetric. Top heavy. Unstable. And therefore it will fall again. And people everywhere will hurt again. And some will topple from survival to non-existence because when the rich become less rich the poor become even poorer.

That is why our firm focus must turn to Italy over the next few weeks. Prime Minister Berlusconi will visit President Obama shortly. The US has kept faith with the African poor. The President must as a matter of urgency ask precisely why the US and all of Italy's G8 partners (with the inglorious exception La France Perfide) should keep to its solemn binding word and Italy need not? Is there some special circumstance? Are they or are they not in the top rank of economies? If they are -- pay up your membership fee. If not -- get out.

Let the Italian Prime Minister come up with a plan but lets see his signature on the check before we believe him again. Let us watch to see if the Italian Prime Minister understands his global responsibility. Let us see if Italy keeps faith with the world's poor.