Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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G8 Leaders Give Global Issues Short Shrift, Again

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  July 13 / 08

Zack Gross

The G8 Summit this past week in Hokkaido, Japan was an activist’s dream.  Leading world politicians rubbed shoulders with the common person and listened to the concerns of the poor.  Immediate action on climate change was agreed upon and binding laws were passed to ensure that the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to end abject poverty in Africa would be met on time.  New lifestyles were adopted that would bring an end to waste and pollution, and new technologies were invented to end our addiction to oil. 

Or was that just an activist’s dream?  I guess it was.

Another G8 Summit played out this week, amidst tight security, photo opportunities, arguments over who is the greatest polluter, a focus on Zimbabwe (a problem indeed, but a small one in comparison to so many others), and emissions targets set a generation  too far into the future.  With the current downturn in the global economy – oil and food prices being on the rise - it might be that the promises that leaders have made in the past, but not yet acted upon, will now be completely thrown out the window. 

Simon Maxwell, Director of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a leading British think tank on humanitarian issues, says that polling shows that global poverty has dropped out of the top ten issues that concern that country’s public.  Since the tsunami in East Asia three and one-half years ago, our moral duty to help the less fortunate around the world has had some traction with people, but is now being lost in concerns about national economies, crime, health care and immigration.  Unfortunately, this is the growing opinion of citizens in a country that has taken a leadership role in supporting the MDGs, while other rich countries such as the US, France, Germany and Italy have fallen well behind their past commitments.

Maxwell’s argument is that the public has to understand that global solutions to weak economies and governance, to poor health and education, and to climate change will benefit rich countries as well as poor ones.  To fight pandemics, terrorism, illegal immigration and the many other challenges and fears we face, we must support global efforts at social justice, diplomacy and peace building, better quality aid, debt relief and fairer trade.  Paramount, says Maxwell, is that we understand that aid is not enough – there must be changes in how international institutions (the UN, the World Bank) work and in global trade relationships, to the benefit of all.

Another voice at the ODI, Fletcher Tembo, listed at the start of the G8 what changes he felt need to be made in the global relationships.  He praised Japan, the host of the Summit, as a leader in aiding African development, as it has pledged to double its aid by 2012.  He hoped that Japan would be able to use its influence on other G8 members.  First of all, Tembo calls for a shift from loaning money to developing countries to granting them funds.  He argues that predictable, reliable funding allows poor nations to pursue the improvement of their health and education systems in a strategic and long-term fashion rather than making short-term, splashy additions to infrastructure.

Secondly, Tembo calls for an end to tied and conditional aid, which often is inefficient and benefits the donor nation more than the recipient.  “Tied aid” means that developing countries are given credits to spend in the donor nation, for example on technology or food, which seems like a good idea.  However, they really might have been able to purchase these items, and possibly could have acquired more appropriate goods, at better prices closer to home.  Both Japan and Canada have recently made strides in reducing tied aid. 

Finally, says Tembo, the input from and participation of civil society (you and me, globally speaking) should be a priority.  There needs to be greater attention paid to human rights, transparency and democracy.  In the so-called “developed world”, this takes us back to the issue of the public’s perception of the issues that face our world and how we should respond to them.  The Overseas Development Institute asks the question:  How can we get people here to see this not as a “them” issue, but as an “us” issue?  Overseas, the question is:  How can international institutions and national governments, many of whom sadly have a long tradition of not being accountable to the people that they “represent”, be redesigned to respect their publics and deliver to them the basic necessities and opportunities that they so need?

As the G8 Summit wrapped up, many development activists turned to focus on the “next big meeting”, the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Accra, Ghana in September.  Whether the timeline from meeting to meeting is also the road map to a better world is an open question.  A step forward here and a couple of steps backward there seems to be the order of the day.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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