Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Expect Mixed Messages When the Heat is On

The Prime Minister came to Washington looking to make progress on Africa and global warming. So it was unclear quite what message he hoped to send out by arriving at the White House in a gleaming, gas-guzzling Rolls-Royce.

If he had needed a gentle reminder of the dangers of an over-warming planet, Mr Blair needed only to have wound down the car window: it was a sweltering 89F in Washington yesterday and, by the time the Prime Minister, arrived in the East Room with George Bush, he was looking a little flushed.

Maybe he was flustered by the controversy surrounding his wife, Cherie, and the speech she delivered the previous night for which she received up to £30,000 - an alleged breach of parliamentary rules.

But perhaps Mr Blair was simply beaming. After all, he had good news to announce, he claimed - nothing less than a breakthrough in his efforts to boost aid to Africa.

"In respect of debt and debt cancellation, I'm pleased with the progress that we're making," he said.

The reality might be very different. It was announced with great fanfare that the US had agreed to provide $674m (£367m) in famine relief for Ethiopia and Eritrea. It sounded a lot until you remembered that the administration gave three times as much to Florida last autumn to help it repair the damage from last year's hurricane.

Indeed, it was pointed out to the President that in percentage terms, the US was one of the lowest spenders on Africa - managing to give just 0.15 per cent of its gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid in 2003. Why would he not double aid as asked by Mr Blair? The President was prepared with an answer that both sounded good and which may have even been (technically) true.

"Well, first as I said in my statement, we've tripled aid to Africa," he said, ignoring those aid experts who say the figures he is quoting are not comparable.

Mr Bush was also ready when he was asked about climate change, a topic close to his heart ever since he withdrew the US from the Kyoto Treaty soon after he came to office. "We lead the world when it comes to millions of dollars spent on research about climate change," he said.

There was no mention, however, of his administration's suppression of scientific data that reveals the extent of global warming, or its refusal to accept that human activity is contributing to it. He even claimed vast progress was being made in developing hydrogen fuel cells, on which $720m has been ear-marked for research.

But again there was no mention of his 2003 tax-break that allows a Hummer - admittedly capable of more miles to the gallon than Mr Blair's roller - to be classified as a light truck. The result is that anyone self-employed can buy a $100,000 SUV and deduct more than half the cost in taxes.

One could only imagine what anyone in Africa must have made of the performance of the two leaders, standing beneath the White House's vast crystal chandeliers. Mr Bush warned the US was not ready to help African nations that did not open its markets to US products. Again, there was no mention of the vast millions paid to American farmers in subsidies - something blamed for undermining African farmers.

As all of this went on Mr Blair stood by, grinning as best he could at the man he is hoping will really deliver when it comes to next month's G8 Summit. Whether it was a grin of incredulity or of strained embarrassment was unclear. What was clear was there was a lot of hot air about in Washington yesterday afternoon and it was not simply the result of the weather.

The Independent

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