The G8 remains relevant

If you were to read much of the American media, including that grand old dame the New York Times, you might be forgiven for thinking that President Barack Obama had a three-day layover in Italy between his trips to Russia and Ghana. Coverage of the G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy was overshadowed by his speech to Russian leaders during a trip to Moscow, the ongoing coverage of Sarah Palin’s resignation and Sonia Sotomayer’s pending confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Here in Canada there was some G8 coverage, but policy gave way to silly stories about whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper put a consecrated communion wafer in his pocket at a Catholic funeral before he left for L’Aquila (he didn’t) and how late he was for the photo-op of leaders (slightly behind President Obama who was also late).

Amid what coverage there was of the G8, there is plenty of chatter that the forum of the world’s 8 largest economies has outlived its usefulness, is undemocratic and must give way to a more representative form of global governance.

Of course the G8 and its sister meetings of the G20 are not actually an official form of global governance, just a chance for leaders who, as Prime Minister Harper says, have shared values to gather and discuss ways for the world economy to move forward and respond to challenges. With the exception of Russia each member has a shared history that includes respect for the rule of law and being the most stable democratic governments in the post-war world.

Marti Foresti and Leni Wild, with Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, see the G8 as a group that has lost its way, especially when it comes to international aid and development policy. Ahead of the G8, the ODI called on the group to offer more assistance for Africa; at the end they said what was offered was not enough. Even the $20 billion pledged for food security, while acknowledged as a higher than expected figure, is dismissed as “insufficient”.

Foresti and Wild, like most professional aid workers I’ve dealt with, use government-to-government aid as the benchmark for how generous a country is and clearly they feel the G8 is not generous enough. “On aid, it's clear that donors have frequently pledged funds but not delivered them in full. At Gleneagles in 2005, donors committed to double aid by $50 billion (including $25 billion going to Africa) by 2010. A year before the deadline arrives, the G8 countries are still some $15 billion off-target and few have yet reached the goal of devoting 0.7% of GNP to aid”.

Government-to-government aid is often not effective and is the type most likely to be abused by corrupt governments as described by Dambisa Moyo in The Wall Street Journal and in her book Dead Aid (reviewed on Mercatornet here).

A more global view of aid to developing nations from the Hudson Institute shows that once private donations and remittances are included, four of the G8 nations (United States, Canada, United Kingdom and France) all surpass the target of 0.7% while Germany is just below the threshold at 0.67%. Italy and Japan, neither of which has a culture of philanthropy, still fall well below (0.41% and 0.29% respectively); Russia was not ranked.

What Foresti and Wild argue for, and they are joined by others such as Ruth Davis of Chatham House and Andrew Schrumm of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, is an opening up of the G8 to other countries. Davis and Schrumm recently opened their own op-ed with the following line, “The days of the traditional G8 Summit are numbered. No longer can these eight powers convene effectively without the strong participation of the major emerging economies.”

Maybe that’s true, but if indecision and ineffectiveness are among the worries of Davis and Schrumm, what will be solved by adding 11 more countries plus the presence of the European Union through the G20? At the L’Aquila meeting, an agreement on climate change was quickly dismissed by Russia, China and India as a non-starter if any measures required to reduce greenhouse gases were to interfere with the economic growth of their own national economies. Global action yes, but not if it hurts my people, say the leaders of the emerging economies.

The G8 was originally convened for the heads of state from industrialised nations to find a way to deal with economic problems such as the 1973 oil crisis; it was never meant to be a form of global governance to deal with all matter of international issues. The fact that the G8 is now seen as the proper place to deal with climate change, African aid and development, regional crises and the worldwide economic slowdown is perhaps a sign that global leadership from other multinational institutions, such as the United Nations, is lacking.

In September there will a meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh, in the spring of 2010 the G8 will convene in Huntsville, Canada. In between, there will be meetings of the World Bank governors and the IMF; the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development will put forward several reports, while the United Nations will hold its General Assembly; the climate change conference in Copenhagen will come in December.

All of these groups offer a certain amount of global cooperation, but all of them fall short of the idea of global governance called for by Foresti and Wild or even Pope Benedict XVI in his most recent encylical. The reason is a simple one that is no longer fashionable in foreign affairs discussions, national self-interest. Do China or India really want to delay the growth of their middle class in order to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets proposed by Western nations that have already experienced and benefited from industrialisation? No, it goes against the interests of their people, those in the middle-class and those hoping to join the middle class.

While the G8 may not be perfect and while it’s meetings may not result in the resolution of the world’s problems it will continue to play a significant role in world affairs. Like those who declare that the end of American economic leadership is just around the corner, claims of the demise of the Group of Eight are highly exaggerated.

Brian Lilley is Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations 1010 CFRB Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of Mercatornet. Follow Brian on Twitter.


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