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David Cameron has two weeks to save the world

At three big international summits being held in the UK over the next fortnight, nothing less than the fate of the world’s poorest people is at stake.

Nelson Mandela in Trafalgar Square in 2005. Photo: Getty

At three big international summits being held in the UK over the next fortnight, nothing less than the fate of the world’s poorest people is at stake. Not to be overly dramatic about this, but the UK is about to play host to two weeks to save the world. OK, maybe that is a bit overdramatic.

This afternoon in Hyde Park activists and campaigners will gather for ‘The Big IF’. It’s the first time in eight years that the UK development NGOs have pooled their resources and campaigned together. I’ve got my white wrist band, but will a big party in the park really achieve anything?

The campaign is asking for a lot of different things. There are no less than seventeen demands covering eight categories: tax, nutrition, land, biofuels, agriculture, climate change, transparency and accountability. “What do we want?” OK, that might be too complicated, so “when do we want it?” “Now,” of course. When might we might we actually get it?

There are some causes for optimism. This weekend David Cameron hosts a ‘Hunger Summit’ and campaigners, led by Save the Children, hope to squeeze a billion dollars out of the US, the World Bank and the EU. This kind of cheque book signing, or “pledging” of existing aid budgets in the case of the UK, is a relatively easy, soft pro-government agenda. Of course child nutrition is important, but is only one part of the much wider IF agenda.

The following weekend, at another summit, Cameron’s “golden thread” will be weaving its way through the thorny issues of the ‘three Ts’: trade, tax and transparency. That might sound like pretty big agenda but, as Kevin Watkins at the ODI says “you can park expectations on trade” because it’s not going to happen.

Tax dodging is a hot issue, but can a global deal be done? Long-time tax campaigner Melanie Ward of Action Aid warns that a deal with tax havens could leave poor countries “out in the cold” and “would be a victory for self-interest and continued subordination of the world’s poor, rather than progress towards justice”. Tax is a far more challenging agenda for the Government. While Cameron has talked tough on tax, he has shown little sign of action when dealing with tax havens, many of which are, after all, still British overseas territories.

That leaves us with ‘transparency’. As Kevin Watkins explains, “the problem is that transparency initiatives are at best weakly linked to wider strategies for building capacity, strengthening the entitlements of marginalised groups, and giving the poor a voice”. Significant movement on this agenda is more likely to come through revisions to the UN’s Post 2015 Development Agenda, where civil society at least gets a name check, if not yet a tangible target. To better understand why ‘voice’ matters, read Civicus President Jay Nadoo’s passionate call for the voices of the global south to be heard among the professionalised global debate.

So what about the actual G8 summit itself? Like every big leaders’ summit, a lot will depend on the work done by the sherpas ahead of the event itself. You can’t expect the heads of the eight richest countries in the world to just rock up and magically find a consensus. They arrive only in time to dot the ‘i’s, cross the ‘t’s and smile for the photo op. So the next few weeks are crucial, because this is the time that UK Government Ministers will be calling their opposite numbers to thrash out the details of the deal.

The toughest area of all could be preventing land grabs, the more structural issue that the hunger summit will park and leave for the G8 to sort out. So even if the fortnight starts with a victory at the hunger summit, it could end in defeat for the main aim of the IF campaign: Enough Food for Everyone. Then what? Will the UK development NGOs go their separate ways, pursue their own agendas and refuse to work together again for the next eight years, until the next time the UK hosts the G8? Or will the campaign continue onto Russia next year, when Putin hosts the G8, the G20 and, coincidentally, the Winter Olympics?

Having all the eggs in the G8 basket was something IPPR & the ODI warned against at the start of the IF campaign. The whole premise of ‘IF’ was that it was contingent. But that nuance might have been lost on the public. Having such a wide ranging agenda means at least some success is guaranteed but the complexity has made it harder to get the public engaged. With hindsight, a simple focus for this year on tax might have been a better strategy. But there is no doubt that UK development NGOs should have done more to build, sustain and deepen public engagement over the last eight years.

IF is not ‘Make Poverty History’ and 2013 is not 2005. Blair, Brown and Bono at Gleneagles feels like a lifetime ago. But to quote the great Nelson Mandela on the steps of Trafalgar Square, “sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that great generation.” No pressure Dave.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2008-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR

He tweets: @RDarlo