The G8 after L’Aquila: on shaky ground

Marta Foresti Leni Wild
14 July 2009

In the run-up to the Group of Eight (G8) meeting in the Italian town of L'Aquila on 8-10 July 2009, the prognosis did not look good. Italy's lack of strong leadership in the pre-summit process; its weak commitments on development policy and recent drastic cuts to its aid budget; the controversies swirling around its prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi; and even the government's decision to host the event near the location of a major earthquake in April - all this contributed to a sense of pessimism and low expectations before leaders arrived in L'Aquila (see Geoff Andrews, "Italy and the G8: voices from L'Aquila", 10 July 2009).

Marta Foresti is programme leader at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Leni Wild is research officer at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Also by Leni Wild in openDemocracy:

"The darker side of global civil society" (3 April 2006)

"China, Africa and the G8: the missing link" (11 July 2006)The gathering was in the event not the fiasco some feared, but what does emerge from L'Aquila is a strong sense of déjà vu. There is nothing new to report on aid commitments; in the leaders' final declaration, the targets agreed at the Gleneagles summit in July 2005 were reaffirmed, but no new action was announced. On climate change, talk of a "historic achievement" accompanied the agreement to keep global temperature rises below two degrees, and to make 80% reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions in developed countries by 2050; but as the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon pointed out, these mean little without clear commitments on how they will be delivered.

In a similar vein, the potential $20 billion pledged for food security, though welcomed as a higher figure than anticipated, is likely to be insufficient to address the rising number of malnourished and hungry people in developing countries: and much will depend on what Barack Obama can contribute to supporting agriculture and farmers in developing countries (the details of which will be announced at the forthcoming  G20 meeting, in Pittsburgh on 24-25 September 2009).

When set against the context of the global financial crisis, which is pressing hard on people in many developing countries, these results are disappointing.

A G8 audit

But this very outcome makes this a good time to reflect on the relevance of the G8 as a mechanism for setting and delivering priorities to meet the most urgent global challenges: among them climate change, trade, security, and development in Africa. Britain's department for international development (DfID) in its new white paper emphasises the importance of interdependence between rich and poor nations and calls for better international working, including with the emerging powers. But can the G8 be an effective vehicle for this?

The evidence of the G8's existing performance is the place to start the assessment. 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. It is promising in this respect that the G8 has now released an accountability report that details the progress of individual donor states against some G8 commitments, alongside a pledge to undertake a fuller review in 2010. At the same time there has already been criticism of this initial report, not least because it fails to measure progress against the commitments made at Gleneagles.

In any case, accountability is not the whole story: even a more accountable G8 will only go some way to meet the challenge G8 countries face in terms of standing up to growing public scrutiny and questioning of their aid policies. In Britain, research commissioned by DfID reveals signs of declining levels of support for aid and development; in part as a result, DfID has introduced a new overarching logo (UKaid) in an attempt to communicate better what it does and where aid spending goes; though whether this will win the hearts and minds of the public in hard economic times remains to be seen. In Italy, where aid and development were never particularly high on the political or public agenda, groups like Action Aid are worried that the latest G8 will (Berlusconi's promises notwithstanding) mark the end rather than the beginning of any public debate on development.

A new format

It is increasingly clear that the G8 cannot act alone and that emerging and developing economies must also be represented at the table where major decisions on global development and governance are made. The G8 has long been criticised as an elite club; in 2009 it seemed  determined to shake off this perception by including more non-G8 countries than ever before in the summit discussions.

The expanded G8 format brings in emerging economies (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Egypt) to compose the so-called G14; there is also a wider circle of other developing countries involved at other points in the agenda (representatives of nine African countries and the African Union among them). There may be some pragmatic thinking at play here: the prominence of the G20 since the first major summit of its new format in Washington in November 2008 reflects the corresponding sense of the G8 countries' decreasing legitimacy on global issues. The new approach of the G8 may enable it to be more inclusive while still maintaining a clearer mandate on development issues than the G20. But will this translate into more inclusive commitments? The experience of L'Aquila offers few grounds for confidence.

In 2001, and again in 2005, it all seemed so different. Then, what felt like some groundbreaking steps were taken towards "making poverty history" as thousands demonstrated in Genoa and Gleneagles. By the end of the decade, however, the G8 appears to be losing ground. This is a body becoming associated with broken or unmet promises, and with politicians' wavering vacillation in the face of the global economic recession and the possibility of falling public support for aid. The G8 can now be depicted as a weak instrument to effect change in the direction of a more just, equal and sustainable world. The problem is, a better solution has yet to be found.

Among openDemocracy's articles on global development policy:

Jonathon Porritt, "'As if the world matters': reconciling sustainable development and capitalism" (30 November 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "The aid business: phantoms and realities" (18 July 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "A German vision: greening globalisation" (27 March 2007)

Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy" (11 April 2007)

John Elkington, "Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet" (11 April 2007)

Michael Edwards, "A world made new through love and reason: what future for 'development'?" (25 April 2007)

Stephen Browne, "G8 aid: beyond the target trap" (6 June 2007)

Paul Collier, "The aid evasion: raising the ‘bottom billion'" (11 June 2007)

John Elkington & John Lotherington, "Can democracy save the planet?" (21 April 2008)

Kweku Ampiah, "Japan and Africa: a distant partnership" (6 June 2008)

Simon Maxwell, "Development in a downturn" (4 July 2008)

Andrew Shepherd, "The anti-poverty relay: a progress report" (24 September 2008)

Anita Sharma, "The core crisis: standing with the poor" (30 October 2008)

Andre Wilkens, "The global financial crisis: opportunities for change" (10 November 2008)

Simon Maxwell & Dirk Messner, "A new global order: Bretton Woods II...and San Francisco II" (11 November 2008)

Simon Maxwell & Alison Evans, "Financing development: from Monterrey to Doha" (26 November 2008)

Krzysztof Rybinski, "A new world order" (4 December 2008)

Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Sue Branford, "The G20's missing voice" 25 March 2009)

David Hayes, "The G20 and the post-crisis world"  (2 April 2009)

Göran Therborn, "The killing-fields of inequality" (6 April 2009)

Patrice de Beer, "Esther Duflo: the new French intellectual" (9 April 2009)

Alison Evans & Dirk Willem te Velde, "Too little, too late? The UN and the global financial crisis" (23 June 2009)

Geoff Andrews, "Italy and the G8: voices from L'Aquila" (10 July 2009)

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