TOYAKO, July 7 – Leaders of the world’s top industrial powers were under pressure Monday to live up to pledges to help Africa as they opened a summit dominated by skyrocketing oil and food prices.
Leaders including US President George W. Bush gathered in the secluded spa resort of Toyako in northern Japan for a three-day session, with eight African leaders joining the first day to take up the plight of the continent.
Protesters were being kept at bay in a specially designated camping area on the opposite side of sapphire-blue Lake Toya, away from the plush hilltop hotel where the world’s most powerful leaders were gathering.
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso set the tone for the meeting by proposing the creation of a one-billion-euro (1.57-billion-dollar) EU fund to fight hunger and help farmers in poor countries.
The fund, if approved by the EU, would aim to boost agricultural production by providing necessities such as seeds and fertiliser and ensure a safety net for the most vulnerable, Barroso told reporters.
Food prices have nearly doubled in three years and set off riots in parts of the developing world, which are also being hit hard by record oil prices.
"Today there is too much suffering on the continent of Africa and now’s the time for the comfortable nations to step up and do something about it," Bush said Sunday, calling for further aid and medical assistance to Africa.
Pope Benedict XVI called on G8 leaders to focus on the world’s weakest and poorest people when they meet, as they are "more vulnerable now because of speculation and financial turbulence and their perverse effects on the prices of food and energy."
But aid groups said that some of the G8 nations — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States — were walking away from earlier commitments.
The club of rich nations in 2005 promised to boost aid to Africa by a further 25 billion dollars by 2010. But UN and African Union figures indicate that only less than a quarter of that amount has been forthcoming.
British charity Oxfam said that Canada in particular was working to water down aid pledges, with their position backed by France and Italy.
"We can’t let them step away from their promises," Oxfam activist Max Lawson said. "For rich countries this is peanuts. For African countries this is life or death."
The G8 was joined for Monday’s so-called outreach session on Africa by the leaders of Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and the head of the African Union.
The African Union Commission at its meeting last week ratcheted up pressure on G8 leaders to live up to the pledges made at the 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Britain.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would also hold talks with African leaders on the crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe secured a sixth term last month in a widely condemned election.
Ban, speaking to AFP in an interview on his way to the G8 summit, said that he did not consider the election legitimate.
He also said that he would press for action on climate change on Wednesday, when the G8 will meet with leaders of eight other major economies.
"I hope the US ultimately should take all this leadership role. This is what the whole international community expects of the United States," Ban said.
The United States is the only major industrial nation to shun the Kyoto Protocol as it pushes for more commitment from developing nations.
The G8 leaders were expected to focus at their main session on Tuesday on soaring oil prices, which have imperiled global economic growth by stoking inflation, pormpting warnings by aid groups not to forget Africa.
In Mali, hundreds of activists from around the world gathered in the dusty town of Katibougou for the opening of a poor people’s summit organised to counterbalance the G8.
"The governments of the G8, heavily industrialized countries, are most responsible for climate change and the international food crisis which are raging over the world," said organiser Barry Aminata Toure of the Malian coalition on debt and development (CAD-Mali).