G8 is Gr8?

Simon Maxwell of the Overseas Development Institute discusses the results of the recent G8 Summit, s

At this time of the year, commentators queue up to disparage the G8. Too much hot air. Too much hospitality. Not enough action. I disagree.

This year, the leaders didn’t do badly, at least on international development. Aid, Africa, food prices and climate were all on the agenda, as was Zimbabwe.

In terms of aid, a huge effort went into securing reaffirmation of pledges made at Gleneagles in 2005. This is a necessary project, especially considering the slow pace of delivery. Excluding debt relief for Iraq and Afghanistan, overall aid has barely increased since 2005, and donors are currently close to $US 40 bn short of the target they set for 2010.

The Italians, the Germans and the French are all G8 countries with a mountain to climb if pledges are to be met. Even the Japanese, though meeting pledges, have set the bar low and are stuck at the bottom of the DAC league table of aid/GNP ratios.

Arms were twisted and legs were broken to make sure EU countries reaffirmed their pledges at the EU Council meeting in June. Similar language was used at Hokkaido, but was it worth doing? Yes, if it ratchets up the probability of countries delivering on their promises. Certainly, it will increase the embarrassment if they fail. And, remember, Silvio Berlusconi hosts next year’s meeting at La Maddalena, in Italy. He will not want to be seen back-sliding.

On Africa, specific pledges were made, which again will give impetus to current goals of establishing universal access to anti-retrovirals for HIV/AIDS, providing100 million more bed nets, which will save 600,000 lives, and sending 10 million more children to school. These students will join the 40 million already in the classroom as a result of debt relief and increased aid.

Many people, myself included, decry the proliferation of special funds and initiatives which target numbers like these. In most cases, budget support delivered by a small number of larger aid agencies would work better by allowing countries to write and implement their own plans. But I recognise that special interests and special funds play an important part in the politics of aid. They provide a framework in which countries can develop comparative advantage and build support for aid. Such support is important when economic problems at home undermine support for poverty reduction overseas. In any case, harmonisation and alignment will be the main topics of conversation when aid donors and recipients meet in Accra in September, for the DAC High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness.

In dealing with food prices, the G8 did what they needed to do, marking the importance of the topic and committing themselves to support a plan presented to the UN in Rome last month. The plan contains detailed proposals for short-term action on humanitarian relief, which include strengthening of safety nets and financial support for those countries most affected by the higher cost of food imports. The plan also lays out what needs to be done to strengthen agriculture and produce more food. The G8 communique was a bit more specific; those present estimated that African food production should double and said that G8 governments would do their best to make that happen.

There has been much press discussion of the inadequate climate commitment, fueled by the lackluster goal of cutting emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. Furthermore, China and India haven't been exactly clear on their respective goals, a fact that has many people questioning their resolve.

It can’t be said too often that carbon emission per capita needs to fall. The United States currently emits more than 20 tonnes per capita, twice as much as the EU's 10, and four times more than China's five. Everyone will need to participate to cut emissions by the recommended 50 percent, and even that figure may not be drastic enough.

The G8, however, never intended to approach the issue with much more than a token interest. The real business on climate change is taking place within the framework of the UN Convention, which will set targets for the post-Kyoto, post-2012 regime in Copenhagen next year. George Bush gave up ground and is about to be put out to pasture. We can only hope his successor give up more still.

Zimbabwe is a totemic issue, and the G8 was right to call for the installation of a democratic and accountable administration in Zimbabwe. They were also right to say that regional powers have more leverage than global ones, thus indicating that the proper fora for discussion are SADC, the AU and the UN. There was progress, however, on thinking through what additional action might be taken, such as adding additional sanctions, and building consensus for a Security Council resolution.

It would have been easy to allow the G8 discussion to be dominated by global financial issues, but Africa remained an important item on agenda. The Japanese, for example, committed to doubling aid to Africa. They have also developed a distinctive narrative on international development, founded on the notion of human security and with a strong focus on infrastructure and private sector-led development. These have been long-standing themes, which the rest of the world has only recently discovered.