The Italian Job: What the 2009 G8 Summit Must Deliver on Health and Aid for Africa

By Patrick Watt

The 2009 G8 summit in early July will take place in the midst of one of the deepest economic downturns of recent decades, and at a moment of flux in the international system. The London summit of the G20 heads of state in April and the challenges to which it was trying to respond have raised fundamental questions about the future role and relevance of the G8.

As chair, Italy has placed the global economy, environment and Africa at the top of the agenda for two days of discussion that at different points will bring together the leaders of major middle income economies, African nations and international institutions. With a further G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September, and UN climate talks in Copenhagen at the end of the year, the summit outcomes will be judged partly on whether they can usefully set the scene for these subsequent meetings.

Yet it is on Africa and the focal issue of health where Italy in particular, and the G8 collectively, face their greatest credibility test. In 1995, when they met in Gleneagles, the G8 heralded a major breakthrough when they announced a doubling of aid to Africa by 2010, as part of a wider package of measures designed to accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, hunger, education and health.

Four years on, what was dubbed a 'Marshall Plan' for Africa in 2005 risks disintegrating into a partial plan:

  • While non-G8 donors, responsible for a quarter of the total aid increase, are delivering on their side of the deal, aid from the G8 countries has actually fallen. So far, G8 countries have raised aid by just one third of the total they pledged in 2005.
  • Italy, the host nation, continues to slash its aid spending, and now gives less than a fifth of one per cent of its national income to poverty reduction.

Failure to deliver on recent promises will cost the G8 heavily in terms of credibility. But more importantly, it threatens a huge social cost at a time when the global recession is hitting low-income countries hardest.

The World Bank estimates that as many as 2.8 million additional child deaths could result between now and 2015 unless urgent action is taken to mitigate the impact of the economic slowdown on household income and public spending.

Some G8 countries -- most notably Italy -- have suggested that the fiscal squeeze in Europe and North America makes delivery of current pledges unaffordable. But on closer scrutiny this is a flimsy alibi: the global aid increase promised by 2010 is equivalent to just 2% of the total stimulus package announced for G8 countries at the London G20, and would be equivalent to about 1% of public spending in most EU member states.

Inaction by the G8 is the real unaffordable luxury, not least from the perspective of the 9.2 million children who continue to die each year from easily preventable disease. Where the G8 has delivered additional aid for areas such as health, it has made a lasting and positive impact.
A 90% reduction in deaths from measles in Africa since 2001, and provision of life-saving antiretroviral drugs for 4 million people with HIV and AIDS would not have been possible without the support of G8 countries. This is a platform that needs to be built on when the G8 meet in L'Aquila, not squandered.

When the leaders of the world's richest countries meet in Italy, they must rise to the challenge posed by the global economic crisis, and take the following actions on health and aid.

On health:

  • Intensify efforts to meeting existing commitments on child and maternal mortality, and with other countries increase aid for primary health care from4.6 billion to at least15 billion a year by 2010
  • Work with other donors to improve the quality of aid for health, and ensure that innovative funding mechanisms don't become a substitute for existing efforts
  • Take the necessary steps to achieve universal access to HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and care by 2010, including through support for the Global Fund

On aid:

  • Publish timebound plans for how each donor will meet its aid promises, and together reach the collective target of giving130 billion in aid by 2010
  • Establish a monitoring system which flags where the international development goals are off track, and takes action to mitigate any roll-back of progress
  • Develop a joint plan with other donors to achieve the 2010 aid effectiveness targets, and to review progress annually

Patrick Watt is World Vision's advocacy campaigns director.