In 2005, the G8 committed to fight extreme poverty by doubling aid to Africa, cancelling debt and delivering universal access to AIDS treatment. Eight years later, has it achieved enough to remain relevant to today’s more crowded global politics?
Written by Joe Powell
In the eight years since the last UK G8 presidency in 2005, the politics of international co-operation have become significantly more crowded. The G8’s legitimacy has always been contested. Now its relevance is equally uncertain. A club that excludes China and other rapidly emerging economies, and faces competition from the G20 and innovations such as the Open Government Partnership, understandably has leaders asking if it is worth the investment of their time. To remain relevant there are two tests it must pass. First, the G8 must keep its promises. Second, the group must have an agenda that keeps up with global events and speaks to the concerns of citizens.
On the first test, the most significant promises on fighting extreme poverty were made at Gleneagles in 2005. The commitments included an agreement to double aid to Africa, cancel 100 percent of heavily indebted country debt and deliver universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS by 2010. These were hard won through political leadership, in particular from the British hosts, and mass public action through Make Poverty History and associated campaigns around the world.
Eight years of progress
Another UK-hosted summit is a natural moment to take stock of what has and has not been achieved. In ONE’s Summit in Sight report we set out to analyze the impact of the Gleneagles promises. Inevitably, not all commitments were kept in full, but the conclusion is clear: the galvanizing effect of Gleneagles helped deliver a remarkable eight years of progress in the fight against extreme poverty. Good leadership, with G8 support, has meant that since 2005 in sub-Saharan Africa child mortality rates have gone down by 18 percent, 21 million more children are now enrolled in primary school and new HIV infections have decreased by 37 percent.
There is no simple way to show causality between the G8’s promises and results on the ground. Indeed, it would be wrong to overstate the G8’s role in Africa’s progress when local leadership by citizens and states deserves the bulk of the credit. A forensic look at how the G8 did against its 2005 promises is, however, a worthwhile exercise. The G7 – which excludes Russia, which does not report to the OECD, and so is difficult to track – increased aid to Africa by $11 billion annually, meeting 60 percent of their promise to double it by 2010.
The agreement to cancel 100 percent of outstanding debts of eligible heavily indebted poor countries to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank has resulted in 35 countries having a total of $35.5 billion forgiven. These increases in aid and debt relief have complemented a huge rise in domestically generated resources, meaning the funds available in some of the poorest countries in the world for tackling poverty are now far higher than in 2005.
The G8 countries have also delivered significant additional support for health priorities since Gleneagles, including the creation of the International Finance Facility for Immunisation, which has helped prevent 1.4 million deaths from yellow fever, polio and measles through funding for the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization.
From 2006 to 2011, the G8 pledged $12.9 billion to the Global Fund, helping it support 4.2 million people around the world with antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, increase detection and treatment of new TB cases by 8.7 million, and distribute 310 million anti-malaria bed nets in 2012. Although universal access to ARV treatment was not achieved in 2010 as had been hoped, in 2011 more than eight million people were receiving life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS, 6.2 million of whom were in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite significant progress, there have also been disappointments. Talks on a global trade deal have completely stalled, G8 support for agriculture remains insufficient, and the proportion of people in sub-Saharan Africa suffering from hunger has barely decreased since Gleneagles.
On the first relevance test of keeping its promises, therefore, the G8 scores reasonably well. Some individual countries, such as Italy, have performed far worse than others, holding back the group overall. There are also post-Gleneagles promises, such as the 2012 Camp David agreement to work with African governments to lift 50 million people out of poverty through investment in agriculture, which will require close attention in the future. The UK government decision to produce a comprehensive accountability report in 2013 will help with this process and is welcome.
The second relevance test relates to the agenda of the G8. In 2013 the chosen issues of tax, transparency and trade, with a separate pre-G8 summit on agriculture and nutrition, have the potential to connect with the concerns of citizens and tackle pressing global problems. The challenges are the level of ambition, the breadth of the issues the UK wants to address and the difficulty of winning agreement across the G8 for co-ordinated action.
More Work Is Needed
On transparency, the G8 could help unleash a revolution that makes more data available and help people to use it to hold governments to account. G8 leaders should commit to advancing a global standard on mandatory disclosure of payments to governments by extractive industry companies, including specific commitments to pass “Publish What You Pay” laws by the 2014 G8 Summit in order to gain further momentum and to encourage other countries, such as China, to take similar measures.
Leaders should also commit to help developing countries strengthen their tax bases by requiring public disclosure of information about “beneficial ownership” – to tackle shell companies and phantom firms – and by enabling and encouraging both their revenue authorities and those in offshore financial centers to exchange information automatically. Financial support should also be mobilized bilaterally to help parliamentary committees, supreme audit institutions, media, and local civil society to scrutinize state actors and finances.
The agriculture and nutrition summit will also require concerted political attention. The G8 can help finance African-led agriculture plans and scale up alliances with the private sector to attract more investment ahead of the African Union’s “Year of Agriculture” in 2014. The G8 and other donors should also make financial pledges to fund fully the costed, reviewed plans of the 34 “Scale Up Nutrition” countries in Central and South America, Africa and Asia, which in turn pledge to be fully transparent about nutrition spending and progress. They could also agree a long-term target on stunting and wasting – a neglected issue for too long.
G8 summits will never please everyone. In the era of Avaaz and Change.org, many campaigners feel their efforts are best directed elsewhere, away from eight powerful people sitting together in a room and toward grassroots petitions and local mobilization. But there doesn’t need to be a straight choice between the two. When commitments have been made on tackling extreme poverty, it would be a wasted opportunity if civil society failed to try and hold leaders to account for their promises. The pressure should be kept up. The Gleneagles commitments have clearly left a positive legacy. It is now up to today’s G8 leaders to rise to the challenge of maintaining relevance, and delivering a summit in Lough Erne that really matters.
Joe Powell is the UK policy and advocacy manager at ONE, the worldwide anti-poverty campaign, and leads its work on transparency and accountability in the extractive industries.
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