updated 7/4/2005 2:41:57 PM ET 2005-07-04T18:41:57

Leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations are gathering in Scotland on Wednesday for their annual economic summit amid expectations of a relatively rare occurrence at these meetings — the pledge of hard cash. The meeting is expected to agree on billions of dollars in new support for Africa, the world’s poorest continent.

President Bush and the other leaders will conduct their three days of talks at the Group of Eight summit after an unprecedented warm-up act. Hundreds of the world’s top musicians performed at free rock concerts in 10 cities around the world on Saturday, seeking to raise awareness about Africa’s plight and bring pressure on G-8 leaders to do something.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who set the agenda as this year’s host, wants to achieve breakthroughs not only in African aid, but also in global warming.

The discussions, which will be buffeted by noisy demonstrations from hundreds of anti-globalization protesters and anarchists, will include the hot political topics of Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. With an intense atmosphere surrounding the protests, the meetings will take place under heavy security at a luxury hotel and golf resort in Gleneagles, Scotland.

Blair has described Africa’s condition as a “scar on the conscience of the world” and is calling on rich countries to double the current assistance from $25 billion annually $50 billion by 2010.

Bush, after initially resisting Blair’s ambitious goals, announced last Thursday that he will ask Congress to double U.S. support for Africa by the target date, an increase that aides said would take U.S. assistance from $4.3 billion in 2004 to more than $8.6 billion in 2010.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to help other nations achieve historic victories over extreme poverty,” Bush declared in announcing the increased funding, which included more money to fight malaria, a preventable disease which claims 1 million lives each year in Africa.

Critics, however, complained that Bush was counting support he had previously announced and said the total contribution is still $6 billion below what the U.S. share should be in order to meet Blair’s goal.

A number of G-8 leaders, including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, have also made their own pledges to double assistance and European countries have signed on to Blair’s other target, boosting total foreign aid to 0.7 percent of national income.

The United States, the world’s largest economy, lags far behind other rich nations in the percentage of its giving — 0.16 percent currently — and Bush has made no commitment to reach the 0.7 percent goal.

$40 billion debt
In other favorable signs, the G-8 countries reached an agreement last month to wipe out $40 billion in debt that 18 of the world’s poorest countries — 14 of them in Africa — owe to international lending institutions, including the World Bank.

And the G-8 countries are also expected at Gleneagles to pledge to work for a successful conclusion of the current Doha Round of global trade talks, which has as a top priority reducing rich country trade barriers, such as huge farm subsidies which depress the exports of poor nations.

However, Lael Brainard, a Brookings Institution expert who helped prepare President Bill Clinton for his economic summits, said any pledges made at the summit regarding trade would be suspect because none of the rich nations seem intent on the politically tough actions needed to cut farm subsidies.

Blair has not made much headway with Bush on his other big goal — achieving commitments to reduce emissions of the gases blamed for global warming, calling the negotiations in this area “very difficult.” The United States is the only G-8 country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Bush declared last week on Danish television that meeting the Kyoto emission reduction targets would have “wrecked” the U.S. economy.

French President Jacques Chirac said that he will not be satisfied with a G-8 declaration that lacks a “clear and explicit” reference to scientific warnings about global warming. U.S. negotiators have been working behind the scenes to weaken language in a draft communiqué and avoid any mention of targets or timetables for reducing greenhouse gases.

Blair may try to salvage the climate change issue by shifting debate away from disagreements with the United States and toward gaining support for emission controls in China, whose surging economy has made it the world’s second biggest producer of greenhouse gases after the United States.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and the leaders of India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa will meet with the G-8 on Thursday while leaders of several African countries will hold talks with the G8 on Friday.

This year’s economic summit, the 31st since they began at Rambouillet, France, in 1975, gives both Blair and Bush an opportunity to change the subject from the Iraq war.

Blair won a third term in May elections, but his party lost seats in Parliament and he has seen his popularity suffer because of his close support for the U.S.-led war, which was strongly opposed by many other G-8 countries.

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