The G-8 summit closed here yesterday as a tale of two views, with the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations hailing their focus on technology for developing nations, yet critics warning that debt relief is being given short shrift.
The eight leaders promised to implement a wide range of initiatives to assist developing countries: from fighting infectious diseases, to ensuring universal education for children, to training a corps of Information Technology experts who can help narrow the digital divide.
But critics who have rallied around an international call to forgive the debts of impoverished countries say that the answer they heard may as well have been: "Let them eat silicon chips."
"People can't eat laptops, and an Internet connection is not going to get malaria dealt with," says Adrian Lovett, Britain's deputy director of Jubilee 2000, a star-studded, international coalition of groups lobbying for debt forgiveness in the millennial year. In 1999, the G-8 leaders agreed to work on speeding up debt relief. But so far, only nine developing countries have qualified - out of the 52 which Jubilee 2000 says owe far more than they can ever pay.
"All we got this weekend is a repeat of the promises of last year," says Mr. Lovett. "They're dealing with other issues, and that's good, but they're leapfrogging the debt issue."
Jubilee 2000 and other aid organizations had been hoping that the summit leaders would arrive at a new proposal for addressing the developing world's debt burden, rather than essentially reiterating their intention to carry out last year's plan.
Nonetheless, the summit - historically dedicated to discussing the health of the participants' economies - was directed as never before to what the seven major industrialized nations plus Russia can do to spread the wealth and health to those missing out on advances in both. Less than 5 percent of the computers that are connected to the Internet are in developing countries, according to Nua Internet Surveys. In Japan - the sponsor of the summit - the average life expectancy is nearly three times that of Sierra Leone.
"This is the first time, at least in my experience ... that there has been a systematic focus on the developing world ... and on the digital divide and education," President Clinton said after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as the two briefed reporters in the swampy heat of an oceanfront hotel lobby, its doors thrown wide open to the clamor of cicadas in the trees outside. Mr. Clinton applauded Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori - who has been suffering from low popularity ratings and an image as a technologically challenged premier - for ushering those issues to the top of his agenda.
Others here described the landmark attention to developing nations as a reaction to the jolt leaders got at last December's World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. There, angry protesters took control of the streets and prevented negotiators from reaching their meetings. This time, in a first, a selection of leaders of developing countries demanded and won an audience with the some of the G-8 leaders before the summit began on Friday.
The G-8 leaders agreed on an "Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society" that promises to nurture both the human resources and the hardware to speed the Internet's arrival in countries that remain virtually untouched by it. They agreed to the creation of a "Dot Force" - or Digital Opportunity Task Force - charged with developing communications infrastructure in poor countries. The charter also pledges to reform policies that hinder e-commerce even in advanced economies like Japan, which has seen a relatively slow growth of Internet usage.
"The Okinawa Charter is the most enlightened document I have seen. It is a watershed in terms of the right language being used," says Dennis Gilhooly, senior adviser on Information Technology for the United Nations Development Program. To be sure, the UN still wants to see the debt issue tackled: In New York, Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed disappointment that the leaders did not address debt relief more aggressively. But Mr. Gilhooly says that those who accuse the G-8 of virtually ignoring the developing world's problems are "Luddites," a term taken from the early 19th-century movement that feared the march of technology.
"There is a real resistance in the development community, among people who say we just have to concentrate on clean water," says Gilhooly. "But some of these are liberation technologies," which would allow the developing world to implement even the most basic projects - like food distribution, sanitation, and good governance - far more effectively.
Not all of the summit's focus was on IT. Leaders also agreed to work on arresting the spread of infectious diseases such as AIDS, and promised to invest more in education, with an ultimate goal of universal primary schooling by the year 2015. Clinton announced a year-long initiative to use $300 million in US food surpluses to feed children in developing countries one meal a day at school, as an incentive for families to send their sons - and especially daughters - to class. The "food for education" initiative could feed up to 9 million children, he said.
However, IT was it. Japan announced that is it planning to give $15 billion over five years to help developing countries catch up to Information Age technology. The US has opted for more of a combined approach between public- and private-sector initiatives in education and information infrastructure.
But disappointed advocates for debt relief - some of whom burned a computer on an Okinawa seashore - say the battle is not yet over. Jubilee 2000 - whose roster of supporters include the rock band U2's Bono, Muhammad Ali, and Pope John Paul II - says it will continue to lobby for debt relief at the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund later this year, as well as the opening of the UN Assembly this fall.
Jubilee 2000 says the world's most indebted countries - who owe a total of some $370 billion - could have their debt bought for about $70 billion, at a cost to the average citizen of an industrialized country of about $4 a year for the next 20 years.
"The issue of debt relief is very disappointing," says Ellen 't Hoen, the globalization coordinator for Doctors Without Borders. "Countries are spending more on financing their debts than they are on education. How can you make drugs for things like AIDS more affordable if you don't allow countries to invest in their healthcare systems? If that doesn't happen, this is no more than a PR exercise."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society