`Berlusconi wanted to hike foreign aid to avoid Bono’s anger’

Saturday, December 18, 2010

LONDON - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi considered increasing the country’s foreign aid budget during Italy’ 2009 G8 presidency to avoid a “tongue lashing” from Irish rocker Bono, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

In the leaked cable, William Meara, economic adviser at the US embassy in Rome, said “with its 2009 G8 presidency looming”, the newly installed, centre-right government in Italy “may decide to maintain funding levels (to Africa) simply to avoid an embarrassing tongue-lashing from Bono et al”, the Guardian reported Saturday.

The relationship between Bono and Berlusconi had been strained since 2006, when the U2 frontman accused the Italian prime minister of “exploiting” his image in the run-up to the country’s elections.

Bono’s pictures had appeared in a brochure distributed in Italy in which it was said that the rocker, who has long worked to eradicate world poverty, was “grateful” for Italy’s actions to help the world’s poor.

Later in an open letter, Bono said he felt a “bit exploited” by the claim.

He said Italy would have to more than double its aid by 2010 to meet a personal commitment Berlusconi had made to the singer to cancel the debts of poor countries to Italy.

In 2009, the year in which Italy hosted a G8 summit in the earthquake-hit city of L’Aquila, the country’s overseas development aid to sub-Saharan Africa fell by 238 million euro.

The shortfall led Bono and fellow Irish singer Bob Geldof to launch an online game in which a cartoon character of Berlusconi is hurled into the air by a hammer thrower.

“We all love a bit of fun. But there’s a serious point to the game - since promising to increase aid to Africa in 2005 PM Berlusconi has actually cut it. One man alone has done nothing. In fact Berlusconi is doing even less now than he was five years ago. Mr Berlusconi should be thrown out by the G8,” the site said.

The 2008 leaked cable reveals how badly Berlusconi wanted to avoid losing face to Bono.

The cable speaks of a meeting between Meara and Fabrizio Nava, director of the office of sub-Saharan Africa assistance for the Italian government.

After Meara “brought up criticism voiced by NGOs such as Bono’s Debt AIDS Trade Africa and Action Aid Italy that Italy’s aid apparatus is out-of-date and overly focused on infrastructure projects”, Nava said he expected African assistance would be a focus during Italy’s G8 presidency.

Nava promised Meara that Berlusconi had decided to maintain African assistance levels - even increasing the budget allocation for foreign assistance slightly, to 4.1 billion euro.

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