A hundred days before the G7 deadline for relieving the debt of the world's poorest countries, recrimination was in the air yesterday as a culprit was sought for the delay in turning words into action.

Not me, said James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank. Not us, said the International Monetary Fund.

The bank and the fund are fed up with being tarred as villains and insist that they are doing all they can to meet the target set by the G7 leading industrial countries at their Cologne meeting last year. Since the G7 states are also unwilling to accept responsibility, the poor themselves are being told that there are more hoops for them to jump through.

The attempt to shift the blame is infuriating campaigners, who say that the west has been slow to come up with the money and that the World Bank and the IMF are using the bait of debt relief to impose new conditions on poor countries. What is not in dispute is that the high hope raised when the G7 promised $100bn (£71.5bn) of debt relief has been dashed.

Originally, 24 countries were supposed to start getting their debt written off by the end of this year. So far only 10 have begun, only Uganda has completed the process, and there is a ferocious argument on whether the programme is generous enough to make a difference.

Some countries will have to pay their creditors more after they have completed the programme, and most will still be spending more on debt than on health and education.

Rumbles of discontent have started to emerge from finance ministries, including the British Treasury. Gordon Brown was instrumental in beefing up debt relief in Cologne last year. He thinks the west now has to deliver or explain why. He believes that the thousands of protesters in Birmingham in 1998 and Cologne last year are losing patience with the excuses from Washington.

Mr Wolfensohn said he was prepared to explore the possibility of more "flexible" conditions, which might speed up the process. But debt relief with strings was no bad thing, he added.

"I don't believe that conditionality in lending has had all the adverse effects that are asserted against it. I don't think that my colleagues and I at the bank get up every morning and see what are the conditions we can put on a loan that can ruin the country."

The blame game in western capitals is no comfort to a country such as Malawi, which has been waiting for debt relief since May. It produced a draft poverty reduction strategy -the first hurdle set by the World Bank and IMF - five months ago.

The fund and bank say they have to do an on-the-spot assessment of how much relief the country needs, and delays in completing this mean that Malawi may not get any relief until November. That has cost it $17m, Oxfam says: money that could have been spent tackling the HIV/Aids crisis or building classrooms.

With debt relief high on the list of grievances of protesters due in Prague in the coming days, there will certainly be efforts in the next three months to bring more indebted countries into the process. Campaigners say they are increasingly pessimistic about whether the target of 20 will be met.

It is already clear that the political momentum behind debt relief has been lost, primarily because of the stand-off in the US between the White House and Congress.

Responsibility for hastening the process and ensuring it leads to a real reduction in repayments lies with the G7 states.

If they make it a political priority, much could still be achieved. If they don't, the culprits will be exposed.



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