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Repackaging unmet promises

Jul 24, 2009

Boosting food security by increased investment in agriculture, more aid to Africa and setting emission targets were among many of the commitments made at the L'Aquila summit. But did the G8 merely repackage old promises? Salil Shetty makes a critical assessment from Italy.

The Sword of Damocles hung rather low this time when the world leaders, custodians, as it were, of human good, assembled at L’Aquila, Italy. Against the carefully chosen backdrop of an earthquake- ravaged Italian town, they agreed and disagreed for three long days about saving the world.

Symbolically at least, the G8 summit absolved itself from its reputation of being an elite club detached from ground realties and reaffirmed the centrality of the haunting spectres of poverty, the global food crisis and climate change.

New promises, cold comfort

Hunger and Poverty: $ 20 billion L’Aquila Food Security Initiative

It is indeed heartening that key resolutions were made to shield the most vulnerable sections of the population from a crisis, which they had no role in creating. In light of the burgeoning global food crisis that has left millions of people battling hunger, 40 heads of state from US, Europe, Japan and other countries united to eradicate hunger by pledging a $20 billion fund for rural development of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. The G-8 leaders placed immediate food security measures and sustainable agriculture as a priority issue, recognizing their role in breaking the poverty cycle.

With more than one billion people living in hunger and the number increasing every day, adequate and affordable nutritious food will be made available with support from World Food Program, other specialized Agencies, Funds and Programmes, together with non-governmental organizations. Food, cash and vouchers will be given out through national safety nets, nutrition schemes, school feeding and other such programmes. India already has a robust policy framework in place with flagship programs such as the Mid Day Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), NREGS etc and could play a championing role for African countries.

However, we cannot be optimistic or complacent about aid commitments such as this. The new funding announced for agriculture calls for greater scrutiny. We need to understand whether this is new money or a mere re-packaging of old commitments.

The Promise to Africa – Poverty alleviation through $ 20 Billion and access to water and sanitation

For the first time, in due recognition of the immediacy and scale of crisis, the leaders issued a joint G-8 Africa statement in which they have resolved to increase access to water and sanitation. The leaders met with Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, the African Union Commission and relevant International Organisations and reconfirmed respective commitments towards ODA, peace, security and climate change.

According to the African Development Bank, countries like Congo and Kenya could run out of foreign reserves to purchase goods necessary for survival in a matter of weeks. At the same time, countries like Laos, Senegal, Uganda, Cape Verde and Sudan are cutting expenditures on poverty alleviation for desperately poor citizens. Africa is a significant component of the $20 Billion pledged by G8 this year.

But these promises are not new. The Geneagles Summit, the G-8 Summit in 2005 saw a commitment to increase aid to Africa by $ 25 billion. So far, only $9.4 billion of the $28.3 billion collectively pledged at Gleneagles in 2005 has actually been delivered, with some G-8 countries not even delivering 10% of their commitments to Africa. This reference is an important benchmark when we examine new commitments made this year.

Experts predict that spending on core development, including the MDGs, could decline in the near future by $200 billion as a result of the global financial crisis

International Assessment of the Millennium Development Goals

In 2000, 189 Member States of the UN signed the Millennium Declaration, outlining a vision for the world based on ensuring human rights, human development and human security for all women, men, youth and children. As part of this vision they committed to achieving a set of time-bound goals to reduce poverty, hunger, illiteracy, ill health, and gender inequality and create an environmentally safe world for all. These goals, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aim to monitor progress in world development for the period 2000-15.

Experts predict that spending on core development, including the MDGs, could decline in the near future by $200 billion as a result of the global financial crisis. All over Africa and Asia, governments might have no option but to cut expenditure, which the poor need to survive. Acknowledging the fact that this financial crisis will set back progress on meeting the MDGs, the G-8 has called for an international assessment of what is needed to achieve the MDGs by 2015. This move is welcome but it should evaluate not just the financial needs of developing countries, but also the issue of political will necessary to achieve the Goals.

Free and Fair Trade – Setting a timeline of 2010 for Doha talks

World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Doha Round of trade liberalisation negotiations was crucial for developing and least developed countries (LDC) to gain access to markets. Nations have failed to reach an agreement on a safeguard that will allow developing countries to raise tariffs temporarily in the face of import surges and falling prices. Existing trade tariffs make it difficult for poor countries to compete and the economic crisis has further reduced their export markets. Hence immediate elimination of trade-distorting agricultural and export subsidies is required.

Even though the G8 recognised the centrality of agriculture in poverty eradication, it did not agree to remove domestic agricultural subsidies that harm trade prospects for poor countries. We can only derive consolation from the fact that a new 2010 timeline set by the G8 for conclusion of the Doha round of talks, will have a poverty-reducing focus in the end. But with some countries having just about enough reserves to buy food and other essentials for another six months, we are up against an unprecedented fiscal precipice. Whole nations could crumble and the progress made in the last decade towards the MDGs could be lost. Promises ring hollow and are cold comfort. They need to be backed up by sharp timetables that will ensure urgent action.

Climate Change – Laying down emission targets

The other significant – albeit – half-baked commitment was towards tackling climate change. Within the format of the Major Economies Forum (MEF), a group of developed and developing countries drew out a joint mandate that lays down emission restriction targets to prevent temperature increase by more than two degrees above pre-industrial temperatures.

Once again, given the scale and immediacy of the challenge and its disproportionate impact on the world poor, this is not enough. The failure to commit to stronger emission reduction targets by the G8 with an intermediate target for 2020 will make it difficult to make progress at the climate change conference in Copenhagen in December.

While the emissions will have to peak by 2015, simultaneous progress has to be made on technological innovations for green energy and sustainable livelihood options for the poor. Disagreement over homogenous emission targets for both developed and developing nations cut through the clear mountain air of L’Aquila. Resistance from the emerging powers to a joint agreement that allowed the G8 countries to side step their historic responsibility of “polluter pays” embodied a deeper reality of shifting axes of power.

Is the G8 still relevant?

With the G8 countries reeling under a financial meltdown, the dollar facing a growing threat and a call to restructure the post-World War financial institutions, a stronger voice for developing countries is increasingly inevitable. Many speculate that this could well have been amongst the last of the ‘pure G8’ meetings. The financial crisis coupled with the need to ink a post-Kyoto deal in the coming months has the potential to create a quantum shift in global governance in favour of developing countries.

Little wonder then, that this G8 already had almost 40 countries participating in one guise or another. India has played a leading role in the trade and now climate change negotiations in defending the rights of developing countries. 

Despite the well-meaning resource allocations, unless firm steps are taken towards service delivery improvement, little can be accomplished

But in order to maintain a legitimate and principled stand, India will have to aggressively set its own house in order – greening its growth and meeting its ever-growing rural energy needs and global responsibilities at the same time. There is increasing concern that the economic crisis and higher food prices have pushed back India’s progress. With 50% of the world’s hungry living in India, child and maternal mortality rates continue to be one of the highest in the world and health and sanitation facilities for the rural and urban poor are dismal.

After a resounding victory in the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress led government is confident that it has its finger on the pulse of the nation. The global financial crisis has had a fairly cushioned effect on the country; despite being El-Niño affected, the monsoon is expected to hold up.

The new Indian budget is a clear indication of the government’s sure-footedness. More resources have been pumped into the NREGS, a food security bill is in the offing and a Unique Identification Number project will be rolled out to ensure better governance. Yet, India still ranks embarrassingly high on the Corruption Index published by Transparency International. As a result, despite the well-meaning resource allocations, unless firm steps are taken towards service delivery improvement, little can be accomplished.

As G8 meetings have perfected the art of repackaging old unmet commitments into new announcements, the pledges made in Italy will require careful scrutiny. We have heard promises before on aid and reducing trade-distorting agricultural subsidies. But promises do not feed starving people or save the economies of developing countries from collapse.

What is needed now is delivery on these commitments and penalties for countries which violate them. In that sense, amongst the most encouraging announcements was that the G8 will set up a systematic accountability mechanism to track the extent to which it is keeping its promises. When world leaders break a promise, it is a sin – but when governments break a promise to the poorest people on the planet, it is nothing short of a crime.

The author is the Director, United Nations Millennium Campaign.

Source : Tehelka
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