Lobbyists wait in vain

Observations on the G8 summit

The recent G8 summit was over as soon as it began for the campaign groups that had travelled to Evian, France, in the hope that the world's eight most powerful men would act on previous commitments to tackle poverty, the provision of clean water, HIV/Aids and the cancellation of developing world debt.

As one campaign group officer told me: "The only story here was whether the French president, Jacques Chirac, would get off the boat and shake hands with George Bush or not. He did, and that was that."

Notoriously, the final communiques from the G8 summit are written weeks in advance, and only fine-tuned by the G8 leaders over rich lunches and wine during the event itself.

Five years ago, when campaign groups first got passes to attend the G8 summit, they were rushed off their feet responding to announcements by the G8 leaders on their issues of concern, banging out statements and briefing journalists on the spot. This year, many were twiddling their thumbs as they waited for a concrete proposal - any proposal - to emerge.

WaterAid, which campaigns for the provision of drinkable water and sanitation to the world's poorest people, had high hopes for Evian. But when I saw Stephen Turner, the charity's deputy director, at the summit, he was visibly distressed that his issue had fallen off the agenda completely. "The G8 has become no more than a club," he said, "a jamboree that is losing its legitimacy."

The closest the G8 leaders came to meeting the radical agenda that Chirac originally set was on contributions to the Global Health Fund, to tackle Aids and malaria. Ahead of the summit, Bush said he would contribute $1bn a year to the fund, which Chirac welcomed as historic: the EU, he claimed, could probably find the same amount. But the fund itself says it needs $4.5bn a year just to stay afloat.

Before the summit was even halfway through, NGOs had begun to put out press releases calling it a failure and a washout for their causes; Bush left the summit nearly 24 hours before it was due to finish; and Tony Blair wore a distinctly "I'm in big trouble at home, get me out of here!" face throughout. Outside Evian, an estimated 150,000 protesters marched against the G8.

Despite the temptation to consign Evian to the annals of ineffectual, uneventful international summits, we should recognise that one positive result did emerge from the gathering. Chirac drew up a programme that would give space for African and South American voices to be heard on the issues that affect them. (Chirac's enthusiasm for greater inclusion was such that participants claimed the G8 title should be changed to G15, or even G22; and the official logo called it the Evian summit, rather than the G8 summit.)

The Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, took up Chirac's challenge with gusto: he criticised the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, which is supposed to deliver debt relief to the world's poorest countries. "There has been too little giving too late. HIPC came in little bits and pieces, and the effect is that it really hasn't made a tremendous impact," he said.

Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, also seized the opportunity to make a contribution. He called for a global hunger fund to be set up, which would be paid for by taxing the international arms trade. (Campaigners were quick to point out that 85 per cent of the world's arms sales are made by the G8 countries.)

Now that developing countries have been invited to play at the G8 game, they are not going to go back to being silent spectators. Bush will have to invite the likes of Obasanjo and Lula, as well as other voices of the developing world, too often ignored, when he hosts the G8 summit in the US next year.

"The dynamic has changed," said Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement. "We might have seen the beginnings of a more assertive group of countries at Evian. They could go on from this to demand a louder voice at other institutions, such as the World Bank or International Monetary Fund."

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