There are two ways to analyse a G8 communiqué. One is what you do in the minutes after it is issued, desperately scanning sentences, paragraphs, whole pages in seconds; your eyes alert for key words. Trying to build an instant impression of whether they’ve pulled a fast one, whether things have come out better (don’t hold your breath) or worse (more like it) than you had expected.
In these moments, the smallest things loom the largest, like the use of “for example” rather than “including” (the latter meaning that what follows it may actually happen, the former meaning that what follows was probably opposed by everyone around the table except the host). Communiques need this kind of fast and brutal scrutiny. Without it, the fleeting media spotlight might move on before genuinely significant downgrades (or even upgrades) in the text are spotted, and the chance to test leaders against their pre-summit intentions is left until nobody is listening.
The other way to analyse a communiqué is what you do later the same day, on a flight, or with a glass in hand, or sitting up in bed before you finally submit to sleep after days of summit madness. This one involves actually reading it.
The 2013 communique produced yesterday when the G8 wrapped up their meeting, including the one-page ‘Lough Erne Declaration’, is unusual in being worth a proper read. There is a thread running through it. It isn’t too long. And it has some passages that may be genuinely significant in mandating bold action in the months and years ahead.
Take the declaration, a list of ten sentences that, taken together, demand a pretty high standard of behaviour for G8 members from now on. Point four: “Developing countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed them – and other countries have a duty to help them.” It’s easy to find holes. The repeated use of “should” rather than the tougher “will”, for example, has not gone unnoticed. But picking such nits misses the big opportunity.
Campaigners should take this declaration at face value, advertise it widely and throw it back at G8 leaders every time they fall short. Whether that’s by failing to defend the land rights of marginalised people, excluding developing countries from access to information about the revenues they are losing to tax havens and wealthier countries, or caving in to the lobbying efforts of ‘big oil’ to keep secret the payments they make to governments.
There are undoubtedly disappointments in this communique. The biggest let-down is around the failure of the G8 as a whole to agree to compile information showing who actually benefits from the ownership of each company. If the G8 had agreed to do this and publish the results, they really would have put some rev in the transparency revolution. The fact that they didn’t manage to agree to compile these even for the use of law enforcement agencies is depressing (though five of the G8 are going to consult on doing at least this much). It now falls to the UK and France, who showed leadership, to drive a positive European approach on ‘beneficial ownership’ through the European Union.
Another blow is the lack of new money to put behind positive words on agriculture. David Cameron conceded early on that this would be a ‘leave your chequebook at home’ summit. Nobody can argue with the call for funding to address Syria’s humanitarian emergency. But the $1.5 billion raised in an afternoon for Syria happens to be about the same as the shortfall in the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme that last year’s G8 promised to fill – a promise so far entirely undelivered. Ranking desperate human need is a dangerous business, but many will wonder why the chronic emergency of extreme poverty and hunger does not command the same cash call as the acute crisis in Syria. Both are a matter of life and death.
However, elsewhere in the communique (analysed by my colleagues Verity Outram and Alan Hudson) are tantalising signs of how far the tax and transparency debate has moved in the last year and the extent to which developing countries could benefit. The G8 makes clear that developing countries must be able to participate fully in the exchange of information needed for them to effectively collect the taxes they are due. The push for transparency in the extractives sector, so important for resource-rich developing countries, is buoyant after Canada pledged to match EU and US legislation in a pre-summit announcement. And the little-reported Open Data Charter has been agreed which could transform the way government information is presented and publicised, putting into citizens’ hands the means to hold their governments to account.
All of which means there is plenty of cause for encouragement from Lough Erne, and those who pushed this rock up the hill have something to show for their efforts. The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign should feel proud, holding together a 200-strong coalition to deliver a message that captured attention and leveraged action.
350,406 ONE members who signed petitions calling on the G8 to fight malnutrition and unleash a transparency revolution made their presence felt too, and helped ensure that the eyes of the whole world, not just Britain, were watching and willing a positive result.
Transparency champions from Africa and Asia joined ONE on Saturday to tell the Prime Minister about the human impact of a lack of transparency and their own brave accounts of fighting corruption. And the performers, volunteers and supporters who came together last week for ONE’s agit8 campaign, reviving great protest songs to energise a call for G8 leaders to act, have made their mark and added to a powerful new sense of momentum in the global fight against extreme poverty.
Then there is David Cameron’s role. His style and politics may be different from his predecessor and the 2005 Gleneagles Summit remains, for now, the high-water mark for anti-poverty campaigners as far as G8 summits are concerned. He will have to take responsibility for where this summit fell short just as he should take credit for where it delivered. But he brought energy and a compelling and coherent idea to this G8 presidency and sold much of it to his counterparts.
If activists hold leaders accountable for the commitments made today just as they did eight years ago, and those leaders show by their actions that they meant what they wrote, the Lough Erne communique may yet form a very significant chapter in the story of how extreme poverty was ended. That’ll be worth a read.
What do you think? Tell us how you have been involved in events leading up to the G8, and what you think of the outcomes in the comments below.