G8 Summits: Empty promises each year

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Monday, August 25, 2008

The G8, is made up of the seven most powerful economies of the world, (United States, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Canada, Italy) and Russia.

Together they form a very powerful and influential (though informal) group of nations. For example, they accounting for almost 50% of the votes at the IMF and World Bank.

Source data

CountryWorld Bank Voting Share (%)IMF Voting Share (%)

Sources

United States16.3816.77
Japan7.866.02
Germany4.495.88
France4.34.86
UK4.34.86
Canada2.782.89
Italy2.783.19
Russia2.782.69
Total45.6747.16

Annual G8 summits often involve discussions on how to deal with the world’s (or their) most pressing concerns. As such it also attracts a lot of protesters, campaigners, and increasingly mainstream media. This page gives a brief overview of some of the recent meetings.

G8—a lot of power and influence

Due to the influence and power of the G8 nations, their summits have been seen as a chance to discuss a number of social, political and economic issues. While G8 nations themselves often differ on certain policies, their overall agendas and eventual decisions/agreements have a direct bearing on most other regions throughout the world. As the following points out, their indirect influence as well as direct influence is great and far-reaching:

The G8 plays an important role in global governance. The world’s “elite” economic and political countries make up the G8. Together, these countries are able to push policies and agendas in formal world institutions. For example, G8 countries have nearly 50% of the vote in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). G8 countries also have enormous influence in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Security Council of the United Nations (UN). It is through these formal international institutions that many of the G8’s decisions become reality in the world.

The G8 does not act as a single unit to “run the world.” There is just as much difference and disagreement between G8 countries as there is common ground and agreement. Other countries and groups of countries have power in the world as well and can say “no” to G8 policies and actions. However, through the G8, member countries can make deals and compromises with one another and then form powerful alliances to exert influence in world politics.

Criticisms of the Group of Eight, Mapleleafweb.com, June 25, 2002

As a result, the G8 have come under a number of criticisms from around the world. The following also highlights some of the problems.

By virtue of its combined economic, military, and diplomatic power and influence, the G8/G7 can exercise tremendous influence over the multilateral institutions of global governance. This power gives the G8/G7 great influence on the policies, programs, and decisions of the UN Security Council, World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This is the case despite the fact that, unlike these institutions, the G8/G7 has no permanent staff, no headquarters, no set of rules governing its operations, and no formal or legal powers. For those negatively impacted by the policy agendas advanced by the G8/G7, and for countries excluded from its deliberations, the G8/G7’s influential role in global governance is highly resented and frequently criticized.

... Clearly, the wealthiest and most powerful nations have a right to meet formally or informally, just as other groupings of countries with similar interests and concerns do — such as the G77 forum of developing nations. The fundamental legitimacy problem associated with the G8/G7 is not its right to exist. Rather it’s the way that the G8/G7 has maneuvered to promote itself as the central player in global governance — and in the process undermined the influence of the United Nations.

In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. and other G8/G7 members created a visionary system of global governance designed to preserve peace and promote prosperity through intergovernmental institutions, mainly the United Nations. Today, these institutions are plagued with identity and representational crises and find themselves ineffective in the face of new global challenges, such as responding to the outbreak of intrastate conflicts, stopping financial crisis contagion, and regulating transnational corporations. Structural reform is necessary if the WTO, World Bank, IMF, and UN are to meet some of these challenges, while other global problems will require new, visionary agendas of global governance — and new institutions. Unfortunately, the G8/G7 has shown little leadership in addressing the deepening crisis of global governance. Indeed it has contributed to this crisis by supporting policy solutions that bypass the UN and that favor transnational corporations over public welfare. A yet more fundamental challenge to global governance in the post-9.11 era is failure of Japan, Russia, and European nations to mount a challenge to the increasingly assertive U.S. expressions of hegemony and supremacy in military, economic, cultural, and diplomatic affairs.

Tom Barry, G8: Failing Model of Global Governance, Foreign Policy In Focus, Volume 7, Number 9 July 2002

In a short video interview, Dumisani Nyoni, leader of Zimbabwe’s oldest poverty fighting non-governmental organization argues that nations such as those in the G8, whenever they meet to discuss poverty related issues often do so without the presence or participation of the poor. As a result, it creates a disconnect between what is discussed and what the reality is:

Get the Flash Player to see this video.

Dumisani Nyoni, Poverty Understood, January 22, 2008, © Big Picture TV

Each year, the G8 meet to discuss a number of issues. In recent years, these meetings have become more high-profiled and accompanied with criticisms for the impact of the agendas of these nations on the rest of the world. In many cases there have been enormous street protests or campaigns to highlight some of the urgent issues. Some are highlighted here:

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2007, Heiligendamm, Germany

The 2007 summit is covered on its own page. As with previous years, the annual meeting’s buildup was full of anticipation and public pressure on the leaders to deliver on their promises. Pledges of vast amounts of money made the headlines together with G8 leaders’ self congratulations. Details revealed a different picture, however.

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2005, Gleneagles, Scotland

The 2005 Summit is covered on its own page on this site. The build up has seen promises of debt relief, and while acclaimed as a historic achievement, is actually quite short of what is really needed, and what campaigners have been working hard to achieve for years. Furthermore, climate change actions appear to be watering down.

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2004, Sea Island, Georgia, USA

The 2004 meeting was in a remote location for any protests as such. Discussions were made on extending the controversial HIPC initiative for debt-relief, as well as other measures to develop vaccines for HIV, and substantial relief on Iraq's $120 billion debt (which ironically is a LOT larger than most poor country debts, and yet because of US interest in the new Iraq succeeding has been much easier to make a case for).

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2003, Evian, France

The Evia G8 Summit in 2003 saw over 200,000 protestors. While there was tight security and a few incidents of violence, there were also interesting attempts at alternative villages. The G8 leaders did not discuss much, though they made a show of solidarity after the recent disputes over the Iraq war.

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2002, Kananaskis, Canada

To avoid a turnout of protestors, the isolated location of Kananaskis was chosen for the 2002 G8 Summit.

An initiative called the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) had received a lot of attention and support from the G8 leaders as a plan developed by Africans for Africans, but critics had pointed out that this was developed by the leaders without consulatation with civil society.

While many issues were discussed at the summit, such as the war on terror and nuclear disarmament amongst other issues, when it came to Africa’s development, trade and aid issues, there was much criticism on little substantive progress. For example, $6 billion dollars of aid was promised for the controversial NEPAD plan, which sounds like a huge sum, but it was only a portion of the $64 billion that was needed. An extra billion dollars was also provided to address the worsening terms of trade due to the collapse in exports (which has been a key prescription to prosperity). In contrast, $20 billion was readily made available to secure Russian nuclear stockpiles. (While security issues are of course important, the issue in relation to Africa has been how for years there has been much talk and little action for trade and development issues.)

Many of the key concerns of African nations, such as reciprocating and opening up the markets of the rich nations, canceling odious debt of the poorest countries, investment in infrastructure were not addressed. This is how the Guardian summarized it:

What African leaders were hoping for

Trade

  • Cuts in the high duties that African exports face in western markets
  • Pledges by rich countries to cut vast agricultural subsidies that bankrupt vulnerable African farmers by pushing down world commodity prices

Debt relief

  • $15bn-20bn extra debt relief for the loan repayments draining African budgets and to make up for the fall in export prices. Half the countries to have been through the west’s debt relief programme are still spending more on repayments to their creditors than on public health

Aid and investment

  • $35bn in aid and investment. The UN estimates that it would cost $25bn-35bn to get Africa on track to meet its internationally agreed anti-poverty goals

And what they got

Trade

  • Nothing. Position worse than a year ago as both Canada and the US plan to pump more money into farming subsidies

Debt

  • $1bn in extra debt relief to make up for falling commodity prices

Aid

  • $6bn of EU and US aid to be earmarked for Africa by 2006

Larry Elliott, Africa betrayed: the aid workers' verdict, The Guardian, June 28, 2002

Even the World Bank, often criticized for a number of its policies and impacts on the poor countries, has been critical of the G8 outcome in respect to aid to Africa, describing a number of perspectives and news reports from around the world, commenting that:

Africans were angry and disappointed on Friday, saying the world’s richest nations had signed a “no-action plan” for Africa — offering words of advice but little in the way of new cash, Reuters and the International Herald Tribune report.

A core group of African presidents, led by South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, had wanted full backing for their ambitious African recovery plan when they met leaders from the Group of Eight industrialized nations last week in Canada.

But the agreement signed on Thursday fell spectacularly short of Africa’s needs, analysts and aid groups said, accusing the G8 of dictating the terms of the continent’s revival. “The hot-air brigade returned a scandalous plan for no action on Africa. They recycled stale commitments without saying how and when they would act,” said Neville Gabriel, a director of the South African Catholic Bishops conference.

Analysts said the rich countries, on the final day of a two-day summit in the Canadian Rockies, had latched onto the cost-free aspects of NEPAD — conflict resolution, improving governance and promoting private business. But they spurned African proposals for funding large-scale infrastructure projects, side-stepped the issue of rich farm subsidies freezing out African imports, and ignored NEPAD’s ambitious targets for debt relief.

Africans Fume At 'No-Action' G8 Plan For Continent, World Bank DevNews Media Center, July 1, 2002

An additional issue highlighted even more so was the way U.S./E.U./Japan subsidies for some of their own industries have harmed the poorer countries. When such policies appear to be no-go areas in terms of discussion, then talk of aid and development has been criticized by some as being hollow. The New York Times is worth quoting at length:

Our compassion [at the G8 Summit talking of the desire to help Africa] may be well meant, but it is also hypocritical. The U.S., Europe and Japan spend $350 billion each year on agricultural subsidies (seven times as much as global aid to poor countries), and this money creates gluts that lower commodity prices and erode the living standard of the world’s poorest people.

“These subsidies are crippling Africa’s chance to export its way out of poverty,” said James Wolfensohn, the World Bank president, in a speech last month.

Mark Malloch Brown, the head of the United Nations Development Program, estimates that these farm subsidies cost poor countries about $50 billion a year in lost agricultural exports. By coincidence, that’s about the same as the total of rich countries’ aid to poor countries, so we take back with our left hand every cent we give with our right.

“It’s holding down the prosperity of very poor people in Africa and elsewhere for very narrow, selfish interests of their own,” Mr. Malloch Brown says of the rich world’s agricultural policy.

It also seems a tad hypocritical of us to complain about governance in third-world countries when we allow tiny groups of farmers to hijack billion of dollars out of our taxes.

Nicholas D. Kristof, Farm Subsidies That Kill, New York Times, 5 July 2002

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2001, Genoa, Italy

The 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, Italy has seen an estimated 100,000 people turn up for protests. However, the huge almost militarization of the police, as Walden Bello has described it, and a small violent group of protestors resulted in immense police brutality even with the death of a protestor. (Reports had been coming in all the time during this event at the IndyMedia’s (independent media) Italy web site.

Walden Bello (as well as others) also raised the additional concern that the violence by the police, and also by a fringe anarchist group nick-named the “blac bloc”, combined with the mainstream media fixation on the sensationalism of the violence distorted coverage of the issues at hand for, which so many people turned out to highlight in the first place.

As in Seattle, Washington, DC, and Prague, organizers of what has been the biggest anti-globalization protest so far are worried that the street battles and the antics of the anarchists might overshadow the message that they wanted to deliver to the G-8. Over several months, the Genoa Social Forum was able to line up about 600 groups behind a pledge of non-violence.

Walden Bello, The Battle of Genoa, The Nation Magazine, 20th July, 2001

The G8 summit failed to make any progress on debt cancellation.

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2000, Okinawa, Japan

The 2000 G8 summit in Okinawa was also accompanied by protests, at militarism and debt relief (or lack, thereof). At the start of the protests, 27,000 people took part in a human chain around the summit building.

(Incidentally, the 2000 G8 summit in Okinawa and the accompanying protests about the large US military bases there and militarism in north east Asia, in general, also highlights another issue about globalization — that is, the military back bone that the more powerful countries need to be able to maintain and pursue a globalization strategy that benefits them (and not necessarily everyone else). For more on the military aspect of globalization, as well as the previous link, you can also start from this web site’s section on military expansion. Futhermore, for all the talk about the dollars in aid, or in debt forgiveness, the annual military budgets are still far higher in magnitude, as discussed on this site’s arms trade section.)

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1999, Cologne, Germany

And for the 1999 G8 summit, thanks to the efforts of groups like Jubilee 2000 the debt issue was still on the agenda. They had even gone as far as saying that the most generous proposals for debt relief by the G8 nations in advance of the summit did not go far enough to help relieve the burden of debt and poverty and in fact, was equivalent to just 5 loaves of bread per person for the year.

UNICEF also joined in the call at the 1999 G8 Summit to relieve debt in Africa.

The meeting ended with the G8 offering debt relief. However, it was still criticized to be not enough. (The previous link makes an interesting comparison that after World War II, Germany had more relief so that the children there would have a chance for a decent future, whereas today almost a million children will have died of easily prevented diseases during the last two months, something easily avoided by reducing the debt burden in those nations.)

While not as large as the previous year, 35,000 people formed a human chain around the G8 summit building in Cologne. There were also many famous pop stars. As mentioned in the previous link, U2’s Bono described how absurd it was to have to get the media interested in an issue that deals with peoples lives.

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1998, Birmingham, England

During the G8 Summit in Birmingham, England, on the weekend of 15th to 18th May, 1998, an amazing 70,000 people formed a human chain around the Summit building. A petition of 1.5 million signatures was handed in to represent the Jubilee 2000 initiative to reduce (or even cancel, in some cases) the heavy debt burden faced by the very poor countries.

Unfortunately, as reported by the Guardian (May 17, 1998), the steps taken by the G8 were not seen by many to be as positive as they could have been. The majority suffers and ends up paying the price for the few rulers of these countries who have misused the loans, or because institutions like the IMF have demanded strict “reforms” and cutbacks in social expenditure.

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 20, 1998
  • Last Updated: Monday, August 25, 2008

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Document Revision History

DateReason
August 25, 2008Updated voting statistics of G8 nations in the World Bank and IMF. Added a video clip talking about perspectives on poverty.
June 19, 2005Mentioned G8 Summit 2005 and added in brief summaries of the 2003 and 2004 meetings. The rest remains untouched since July 6, 2002 (for now!)

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.