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  1. Politics
31 July 2000

The world’s leaders try to be good

Robin Oakley fears that, as usual, most of the G8's big promises will be filed and forgotten

By Robin Oakley

Two journalists at this year’s G8 summit in Okinawa asked their hotel’s excursion desk if they could take a sailing trip on the day their papers weren’t being published. “Sorry,” came the reply. “The sea is closed.” And so it was for a mile offshore, with warships patrolling. There was little traffic for the 22,000 police drafted on to the island to control: locals had been told to keep their cars at home unless their journey was strictly necessary.

Security was all-pervading and courteous; I was loudly thanked by five different people every time I walked through a metal detector. But it was also pointless. The requirement to search your hold-all obviously conflicted with the natural Japanese sense of privacy and decorum. White-gloved hands would flutter briefly over the top layer and probe no further for fear of encountering yesterday’s underwear or a peanut-butter sandwich. I could have smuggled almost anything anywhere.

At $750m in Japanese central government costs alone, it was the most expensive G8 summit ever. Was it worth it? When I asked President Bill Clinton if his G8 years had prompted any thoughts about reform of the G8 operation, he had none. “These people need to know each other,” he said. “There are a lot of decisions they have to make, a lot of conflicts they can avoid if they know each other and trust each other. So I’m not troubled by the format.”

In truth, these summits are ritual occasions, a kind of group therapy for world leaders. There is always somebody worse off in the polls than you are. I remember, seven years ago, a former German foreign minister commenting at a G7 (as it was then) assembly in Tokyo that so many of those present were in deep trouble with their electorates that they were “dead on arrival”. But while G8s do more to shore up opinion-poll ratings at home than they do to build up the economies of third-world nations, we should not deny their capacity to do some good. To an extent, their banquets are like fund-raising dinners with a price per plate.

Most G8 leaders sincerely want to re-move the blight of disease, poverty and under-education from the underdeveloped world. Without the focus provided by the Okinawa summit, the developing world would not have got, for example, the $15bn investment programme in IT from the Japanese hosts, Clinton’s $300m “food for education” programme or Tony Blair’s doubling to £100m of Britain’s contribution to spending on malaria, TB and Aids. If Alastair Campbell were to tell a No 10 lobby briefing that, every year, two million people die needlessly from TB and a million die from malaria, and that Aids has wound back the economic clock by three decades in certain parts of Africa, it would scarcely rate a mention in the papers. From the summit, it makes news.

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But the G8 summits are the PR politics game played out at the ultimate level. The organisers, with their choreographed motorcades and cultural banquets, are the Cecil B de Mille of the photo-opportunity, and political trendiness is everywhere.

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The host prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, pledged $15bn to start closing the “digital divide” (this year’s most fashionable phrase) between developed and developing nations, even though he had never laid his finger on a computer keyboard until this month. You can see the problem he was addressing: just 1 per cent of internet users live on the African continent. But, while it may provide some useful subsidised business for Japanese companies, is it really the first thing that Africa needs right now?

The G8 summits spawn lesser conferences and task forces galore. The Okinawa summit set up “DOT” (Digital Opportunity Taskforce) and another on renewable energy. Blair won backing for a conference to be staged with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on conflict diamonds, the gems that finance some of Africa’s dirtiest wars. The PM will stage another conference in February on curbing international crime and drug traders’ profits. It might have sounded very impressive had I not looked up my notes on the G8 in Denver, Colorado, in 1997. That was Blair’s first G8, where he pledged, eye-catchingly, to double Britain’s health spending in Africa, as he did again in Okinawa. In Denver, he was also asked by his fellow leaders to produce a report on international drug crime for the Birmingham G8, which he hosted in 1998. The G8 interior and justice ministers produced, yes, a ten-point action plan. At least it was a shorter document than the 40 recommendations for tackling crime concocted for the Lyon G8 in 1996. We can’t accuse them of failing to recycle resources.

It is a merry-go-round. The G8 leaders justify their presence at these exotic locations by appearing to do something about drugs and crime and third-world debt. And most summits (Okinawa was an exception) are sufficiently dominated by some recent news event to make the leaders look busy. In Cologne last year, it was Kosovo; in Birmingham the year before, it was India’s nuclear tests. But the show of action often remains no more than that. The summit safely over, space secured on the television bulletins and the headlines garnered, the reports are mostly filed and forgotten. It is only when some pressure group, such as Jubilee 2000, compares performance with promise – for example, the $15bn of third-world debt on the way to being forgiven, rather than the $100bn promised in Cologne – that the G8 leaders are held to account.

It is not that they don’t mean to be good. But they move on, and there is no G8 secretariat to do anything about follow-up. Somehow it seemed symbolic, at a G8 much preoccupied with third-world health and communication, that, when I went to talk to Medecins Sans Frontieres in the backstreet building assigned to the non-governmental organisations, the telephones had just been cut off.

The writer is political editor of the BBC