Reading the G8 communique: did we win?

When the difference between "for example" and "including" means the world.

The G8. Photograph: Getty Images

There are two ways to analyse a G8 communique. One is what you do in the minutes after it is issued, desperately scanning sentences, paragraphs, whole pages in seconds, your eyes alert for key words, trying to build an instant impression of whether they’ve pulled a fast one, whether things have come out better (don’t hold your breath) or worse (more like it) than you had expected. In these moments, the smallest things loom the largest, like the use of “for example” rather than “including” (the latter meaning that what follows it may actually happen, the former meaning that what follows was probably opposed by everyone around the table except the host). Communiques need this kind of fast and brutal scrutiny. Without it, the fleeting media spotlight might move on before genuinely significant downgrades (or even upgrades) in the text are spotted, and the chance to test leaders against their pre-summit intentions is left until nobody is listening.

The other way to analyse a communique is what you do later the same day, on a flight, or with a glass in hand, or sitting up in bed before you finally submit to sleep after days of summit madness. This one involves actually reading it.

The 2013 communique produced yesterday when the G8 wrapped up their meeting near Enniskillen, including the one-page "Lough Erne Declaration", is unusual in being worth a proper read. There is a thread running through it. It isn’t too long. And it has some passages that may be genuinely significant in mandating bold action in the months and years ahead.

Take the declaration, a list of ten sentences that, taken together, demand a pretty high standard of behaviour for G8 members from now on. Point four: “Developing countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed them – and other countries have a duty to help them.” It’s easy to find holes. The repeated use of “should” rather than the tougher “will”, for example, has not gone unnoticed. But picking such nits misses the big opportunity. Campaigners should take this declaration at face value, advertise it widely and throw it back at G8 leaders every time they fall short.

There are undoubtedly disappointments.

The biggest let-down is around the failure of the G8 as a whole to agree to compile information showing who actually benefits from the ownership of each company. If the G8 had agreed to do this and publish the results, they really would have put some rev in the transparency revolution. It now falls to the UK and France, who showed leadership, to drive a positive European approach on "beneficial ownership" through the European Union.

Another blow is the lack of new money to put behind positive words on agriculture, after David Cameron conceded early on that this would be a "leave your chequebook at home" summit. Nobody can argue with the call for funding to address Syria’s humanitarian emergency. But the $1.5bn raised in an afternoon for Syria happens to be about the same as the shortfall in the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme that last year’s G8 promised to fill – a promise so far entirely undelivered.

However, elsewhere in the communique are tantalising signs of how far the tax and transparency debate has moved in the last year and the extent to which developing countries could benefit. The G8 makes clear that developing countries must be able to participate fully in the exchange of information needed for them to effectively collect the taxes they are due. The push for transparency in the extractives sector, so important for resource-rich developing countries, is buoyant after Canada pledged to match EU and US legislation in a pre-summit announcement. And the little-reported Open Data Charter has been agreed which could transform the way government information is presented and publicised, putting into citizens’ hands the means to hold their governments to account.

All of which means there is plenty of cause for encouragement from Lough Erne, and those who pushed this rock up the hill have something to show for their efforts. The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign; the 342,219 ONE members who signed petitions calling on the G8 to fight malnutrition and unleash a transparency revolution; transparency champions from Africa and Asia who joined ONE on Saturday to tell the Prime Minister about the human impact of a lack of transparency; and the performers, volunteers and supporters who came together last week for ONE’s agit8 campaign: all have made their mark and added to a powerful new sense of momentum in the global fight against extreme poverty.

Then there is David Cameron’s role. He will have to take responsibility for where this summit fell short just as he should take credit for where it delivered. But he brought energy and a compelling and coherent idea to this G8 presidency and sold much of it to his counterparts. If activists hold leaders accountable for the commitments made, and those leaders show that they meant what they wrote, the Lough Erne communique may be key to the story of how extreme poverty was ended. That’ll be worth a read.