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Instead of falling for the rhetoric around the UN development goals, Cameron Duodu argues that Africa should gauge the true commitment of rich countries to ending poverty on the continent by looking to the past. In this area, the G8 has been sorely lacking, he says.

In the next few days, many sweet words will once again be issued from the UN about the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Africa, given the special summit being held in New York.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in the United States, who is not normally uncritical of the performance of the G8 when it comes to their attitude towards the eradication of poverty in Africa, is quite upbeat about the possibilities available to rich nations before the 2015 landmark for achieving the MDGs arrives.

Writing in the London Guardian on 21 September 2010, Sachs declared: ‘The Millennium Development Goals have triggered the largest cooperative effort in world history to fight poverty, hunger, and disease. They have become a rallying cry in poor and rich countries alike. Ten years after their adoption, they are alive and stronger than ever, inspiring breakthroughs around the globe. The world wants them to work. We are just five years from the target year 2015. If we aim high, great outcomes are within reach.

‘Africa can achieve food security; all boys and girls can complete primary education, and millions more, secondary education; solar and other energy sources can bring electricity into remote villages and primary healthcare can prevent millions of deaths annually and encourage families to have fewer children in the confidence they will stay alive. We can choose, in short, to achieve the millennium development goals, and look beyond 2015 to the end of extreme poverty in our generation.’

It is tempting to mock Sachs for having been infected with a mild form of euphoria by the proximity of so many heads of state in the UN building, all brandishing well-researched papers enthusing about what will be happening by 2015; what can be done and what is projected to be achieved.

In fact, Sachs himself, in an earlier article published in the Guardian on 4 July 2010 gave the G8 a ‘fail’ mark when he juxtaposed the promises they had made, especially at the Gleneagles summit in Scotland in 2005, with the achievements - or non-achievements - recorded in development since then. The United Kingdom government was the only one that passed the Sachs ‘accountability test’. Of the rest, he found that not only were some not attempting to achieve goals they had themselves pledged to achieve, but also that some of them were deliberately fudging figures to give the wrong impression.

For instance, figures were at times badly stated in today's money and had not taken account of how inflation had eaten into them since they were pledged five years ago. The ‘most important pledge of all the G8's promises,’ Sachs wrote, was ‘the Gleneagles one which stated that by 2010, they would increase the yearly development assistance to the world's poor, by $50bn, relative to 2004. Half of the increase, or $25bn per year, would go to Africa, the G8 said.’

But the G8, says Sachs, ‘fell far short of this goal, especially with respect to Africa... Aid to Africa rose by $10bn-$15bn per year, rather than $25bn. The properly measured shortfall is even greater, because the promises that were made in 2005 should be adjusted for inflation. Re-stating those commitments in real terms...aid to Africa should have risen by around $30bn. In effect, the G8 fulfilled only half of its promise to Africa - roughly $15bn in increased aid rather than $30bn.’

You see why I am surprised at the optimism with which Sachs views the possibilities opened by the UN summit on the MDGs? People's future behaviour is usually predicated upon their past behaviour. If, in spite of the hopes aroused by the G8 at Gleneagles to, in the words of one of the campaigning groups, ‘make poverty history’, only 50 per cent of aid pledged to Africa materialised, why should anyone take what the G8 say at the New York summit seriously?

One of the more penetrating observations made by Sachs in his accounting of G8 pledges of aid and delivery, was his detection of the fact that ‘much’ of the overall G8 increase in aid ‘went to Iraq and Afghanistan, as part of the US-led war effort, rather than to Africa’.

(However, in case anyone is tempted to believe that any country that wants increased aid would be best advised to invite the US to invade it, the true situation should be known: much of the ‘aid’ to Iraq and Afghanistan usually goes into the pockets of American companies which carry out contract work for the US military. The rest mainly consists of arms to the client governments of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is wrongly classified as ‘aid’, because, in Iraq, for instance, seven years after the Americans landed there, electricity has not been generally restored and health facilities and schools bombed to the ground remain in that state.)

Expanding on his charge that the G8 manipulate aid figures, Sachs describes what is in effect a sleight of hand by the G8 (though he fails to call the practice by its correct name). He writes:

‘Since the G8 was off track in its aid commitments for many years, I long wondered what the G8 would say in 2010, when the commitments actually fell due. In fact, the G8 displayed two approaches. First, in an “accountability report”, the G8 stated the 2005 commitments in current dollars rather, than in inflation-adjusted dollars, in order to minimise the size of the reported shortfall.

‘Second, the G8…simply did not mention the unmet commitments at all. In other words, the G8 accountability principle became: if the G8 fails to meet an important target, stop mentioning the target - a cynical stance, especially at a summit (Canada 2010) heralded for “accountability.”’

Sachs adds: ‘The G8 did not fail because of the current financial crisis. Even before the crisis, the G8 countries were not taking serious steps to meet their pledges to Africa.’ Giving praise where praise is due, Sachs points out that this year, despite a ‘massive budget crisis, the UK government has heroically honoured its aid commitments, showing that other countries could have done so if they had tried.’

What this situations tells every government in Africa is that they must understand, even more clearly than before, that we in Africa are our own saviours and that we should stop spending money on stupid things, such as purchasing luxury aircraft for presidential flights, while our children are dying from curable diseases, or from sheer malnutrition.

I noticed that recently precious money was expended in Ghana to hold a conference to ‘brand Ghana’. Even as the conference was taking place, a correspondent who visited Ghana five years ago went back to see the progress that had been made since his last visit. He chose to visit a little girl who was born exactly five years ago.

He met the girl, Hannah Klutsey, running from her family's single-room house with tears in her eyes. A mouthful of bread had lodged in her throat and her eyes were bloodshot and bulging.

Her mother, Mary, dropped the bundle of firewood she had carried into the dusty compound and rushed to the huge plastic water pot in front of their ramshackle kitchen. She came back with a plastic cup of water, which Hannah gulped down. Only later, when the youngster was recovering on her mother's knee, did they notice the mosquito larvae at the bottom of the cup, ‘half a dozen wormlike creatures writhing in the water’.

‘The pot must have been left open for mosquitoes to lay eggs in the water,’ said the mother, whose immediate concern was that her only daughter, who had recently recovered from severe skin rashes, could fall ill again. ‘She survived her recent sickness by miracle: another illness could kill her,’ said the girl's father. There is no running water in Kpobiman, the poverty-stricken community outside Accra in which the family live. Like most of their neighbours, the household use water from a shallow borehole. ‘Others are forced to draw water from stagnant pools, where germs and parasites are abundant.’ Added the correspondent: ‘The water is so bad you can't imagine this community is just a stone's throw from the capital city of Ghana, Accra.’

Need I say that if the money used yearly to send delegations to listen to sweet words at the UN (sleep through them would be a more accurate description of what happens) had been used to improve life in the village visited by the correspondent, he would have contributed to ‘branding’ Ghana as a country in which progress is being made, not as one where life is getting worse for some people. Oh, and by the way, that type of ‘branding’ would not have cost the Ghanaian taxpayer a single penny.


* Cameron Duodu is a journalist, writer and commentator.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.