For Poorest, Fish or Fishing Poles? ; Development Aid over Direct Debt Relief Is Emphasized at the Meeting of Top Industrial Nations

Article excerpt

The G-8 summit closed here yesterday as a tale of two views, with the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations hailing their focus on technology for developing nations, yet critics warning that debt relief is being given short shrift.

The eight leaders promised to implement a wide range of initiatives to assist developing countries: from fighting infectious diseases, to ensuring universal education for children, to training a corps of Information Technology experts who can help narrow the digital divide.

But critics who have rallied around an international call to forgive the debts of impoverished countries say that the answer they heard may as well have been: "Let them eat silicon chips."

"People can't eat laptops, and an Internet connection is not going to get malaria dealt with," says Adrian Lovett, Britain's deputy director of Jubilee 2000, a star-studded, international coalition of groups lobbying for debt forgiveness in the millennial year. In 1999, the G-8 leaders agreed to work on speeding up debt relief. But so far, only nine developing countries have qualified - out of the 52 which Jubilee 2000 says owe far more than they can ever pay.

"All we got this weekend is a repeat of the promises of last year," says Mr. Lovett. "They're dealing with other issues, and that's good, but they're leapfrogging the debt issue."

Jubilee 2000 and other aid organizations had been hoping that the summit leaders would arrive at a new proposal for addressing the developing world's debt burden, rather than essentially reiterating their intention to carry out last year's plan.

Nonetheless, the summit - historically dedicated to discussing the health of the participants' economies - was directed as never before to what the seven major industrialized nations plus Russia can do to spread the wealth and health to those missing out on advances in both. Less than 5 percent of the computers that are connected to the Internet are in developing countries, according to Nua Internet Surveys. In Japan - the sponsor of the summit - the average life expectancy is nearly three times that of Sierra Leone.

"This is the first time, at least in my experience ... that there has been a systematic focus on the developing world ... and on the digital divide and education," President Clinton said after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as the two briefed reporters in the swampy heat of an oceanfront hotel lobby, its doors thrown wide open to the clamor of cicadas in the trees outside. Mr. Clinton applauded Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori - who has been suffering from low popularity ratings and an image as a technologically challenged premier - for ushering those issues to the top of his agenda.

Others here described the landmark attention to developing nations as a reaction to the jolt leaders got at last December's World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. There, angry protesters took control of the streets and prevented negotiators from reaching their meetings. This time, in a first, a selection of leaders of developing countries demanded and won an audience with the some of the G-8 leaders before the summit began on Friday.

The G-8 leaders agreed on an "Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society" that promises to nurture both the human resources and the hardware to speed the Internet's arrival in countries that remain virtually untouched by it. …