Blair close to Africa deal at talks with Bush

Posted in Other | 07-Jun-05 | Author: Patrick Wintour| Source: Guardian

George W. Bush (L) listens to Tony Blair during a joint press conference in February 2005.

US ready to back extra payments to meet debts

Tony Blair is expecting a significant US move on multilateral debt relief for Africa in talks with President Bush today in Washington, or at a meeting of finance ministers from the leading industri alised nations at the weekend. Downing Street was trying to play down expectations of a breakthrough ahead of today's meeting - which will help decide the fate of Britain's ambitious G8 agenda - but sources in Whitehall and Washington confirmed progress had been made, and a deal was close.

The US has long supported 100% debt cancellation, but has now agreed in principle that extra cash must be provided by the G8 nations, the World Bank and the IMF to make up the lost interest payments due to the World Bank and owed by the African nations.

The deal would apply to as many as 20 African countries, but the precise criteria, in cluding possible yardsticks on good governance, are being discussed with EU nations.

The chancellor, Gordon Brown, is likely to set out progress at a meeting of EU finance ministers today, as Mr Blair seeks to nail down agreement with President Bush in the US. The prime minister will also be looking for agreement from Mr Bushon a new forum to discuss climate change with developing nations such as India and China.

Mr Blair and Mr Brown have long sought a radical package for the G8 summit next month at Gleneagles, near Edinburgh, but are finding the stakes on Africa rising by the day from Bob Geldof's Live 8 concerts and threats of a mass protest. Washington has been hostile to many of Britain's proposals on climate change and Africa. But as the prime minister flew to Washington, his spokesman stressed the need to build on points of agreement.

"That is where the focus is, rather than continuing the disputes of the past," he said. "You can either have endless discussions on areas we know we are not going to agree on or widen the lens."

Debt campaigners in the US, including the rock star Bono, are increasingly optimistic of a breakthrough on 100% debt cancellation. They have enlisted the support of Brad Pitt, George Clooney and the evan gelical Christian Pat Robertson in an attempt to create the kind of political pressure now being stoked by Geldof's Live 8 buildup in Britain.

They believe President Bush is serious about a second term "compassion agenda" for Africa, including additional cash to finance the World Bank's lost income. Previously, the US had said debt relief should be funded by diverting cash set aside for loans by the World Bank. Critics of the initial US proposal, including Britain, said it would mean qualifying African countries would see debt cancelled, but then suffer a reduction in aid.

The Bush-Blair meeting, the first face-to-face talks between the two leaders since Mr Blair was re-elected, also represents a litmus test of whether Mr Blair's backing for the Iraq war has truly created political capital on which he can draw.

No 10 stressed the real test would not be today's talks, but the final discussions at Gleneagles on July 6 and 7.

Jamie Drummond, a spokesman for the US ONE campaign to fight Aids and poverty, said in Washington that he believed "the Blair visit will accelerate a breakthrough on debt". The optimism from US campaigners contrasts with the relative pessimism from their UK counterparts. But US campaigners pointed out that the Bush administra tion has already tripled aid to $3bn (around £1.6bn) a year and has commitments to raise aid for Africa by 2008 by another £6bn.

No 10 accepted yesterday that the proposed British vehicle to frontload extra aid - the international finance facility - will not be accepted by the US. However, the chancellor told the GMB conference in Gateshead yesterday that Britain will go ahead with an mini IFF backed by Europe and the Bill Gates Foundation, frontloading an extra $4bn over 10 years to help with vaccination and immunisation of children.

Mr Brown said the European authorities will in the next few days give the go-ahead to the IFF for immunisation. He also called on other continents to join the EU in committing itself to move to aid worth 0.7% of national income by 2015. The EU gave this pledge last week.

Mr Brown said yesterday: "If we could, with all the power at our command, working together, collectively change the common sense of the age so that people saw that poverty was preventable, should be prevented and then had to be prevented... then all else we do in our lives would pale into insignificance and every effort would be worth it."