G8 summit focuses on accountability, but where is it?

As the G8 countries this weekend emphasized the need for more accountability on their aid pledges, relief groups decried the fact that many pledges made at previous G8 summits have gone unmet.

Christophe Ena/AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy after being greeted by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper upon his arrival for the G8 summit in Canada, Friday. The G8 will focus on accountability this year.

It is no small irony that Canada has focused on G8 accountability as a priority in this past weekend’s summit.

Nor that it was a Canadian, the iconic internationalist Lester B. Pearson, who came up with the 0.7 percent pledge – later adopted by the United Nations General Assembly – that rich countries would give 0.7 percent of their Gross National Product in development aid to the world’s poorest.

Today, Canada’s percentage of GNP going to aid is less than half the standard set by Mr. Pearson, and as the Group of Eight nations wrapped up their meeting in Huntsville, Ontario yesterday, many aid advocates questioned not only the Canadian hosts’ commitment to development, but the entire group’s very credibility.

“Accountability is key,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said at the opening of the G8 summit. “We must follow through on our initiatives, and meet our commitments.”

This year, in an effort to “improve transparency and effectiveness”, the G8 released its first Accountability Report, saying: “Overall, there is a good story to tell…In some areas, the G8 can point to considerable success; in others, it has further to go to fully deliver on its promises.”

“It’s a wonderful concept,” mused Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned economist charged by the UN with crafting a plan to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, focused on meeting the needs of the world’s poorest. “I’m less than impressed, however, with the nature of the accountability.

“If you let students grade their own papers, they tend to give themselves pretty high grades,” Mr. Sachs, special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, said in comments to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation ahead of the Summit. “But the fact of the matter is that on many of the most crucial pledges – as explicit and time-bound and vital as these life-and-death pledges often are – they have fallen woefully short, but don’t really acknowledge that fact.”

Sachs points to a ground-breaking promise made at the G-8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005 to more than double development aid to Africa, promising that by 2010, the world would spend $50 billion more a year on development than it did in 2004 – with half of that spending in Africa. That commitment was re-iterated at the last G8 Summit in L’Aquila, Italy in 2009.

According to the G8’s own accountability report, that increase in funding for Africa today stands at $15 billion, $10 billion of which came from G8 countries. The headline, at the release of that report, was that the world was only $10 billion short of its overall $50 billion goal. Yet if inflation is taken into account, that shortfall grows to $18 billion – meaning only two-thirds of the goal has been met globally and even less than that in Africa. In the final declaration of this year’s G8 Summit, the Gleneagles pledge is not even mentioned.

Instead, Harper pledged money for a new initiative in the developing world. He managed to scrape together promises of a modest $5 billion in new funding over the next five years to reduce the number of mothers and infants dying during childbirth, but it was met with skepticism.

“The G8’s failure to deliver on promises it made at Gleneagles has made the world wonder whether the G8 is still credible,” Zambia native Henry Malumo, spokesperson of the anti-poverty group ActionAid, said in a statement. “How can poor countries believe it will deliver or be accountable on the maternal health commitments it trumpeted [Friday] given it has just wiped the Gleneagles pledges off its records books?”

International aid group Oxfam called it a “summit of shame” and the group Make Poverty History said the summit had ended “with little to justify its existence.”

Both British Prime Minister David Cameron – whose government has remarkably maintained overseas development spending in its domestic budget despite severe cuts – and US President Barack Obama recognized any lack of accountability as a problem.

"The president believes that the credibility of the G8 rests on the willingness of its members to honor their commitments by reporting transparently on progress and identifying areas where additional effort is required," the White House said in a statement.

But those crunching the numbers said the G8 deserved some credit.

The University of Toronto G8 Research Group, a network of global thinkers on G8 issues, found that of 406 developed-related commitments made by the G8 since 1975, 72 percent have been fulfilled. While compliance on development issues is generally lower than on other issues, it is still “pretty good”, says the group’s director of compliance studies, Adrienne Davidson.

The advocacy organization ONE, co-founded by BONO, says disappointment over the inability to fulfill the Gleneagles pledge is no reason to discount all the progress that has been made by the G8.

“The past five years have resulted in historic increases in development assistance and debt cancellation for Africa,” says a report by the group which calculated that by the end of 2010, the G8 will have delivered 61 percent of their promised increases in development funding (the US, the UK, and Canada have already entirely met their Gleneagles pledges). If you take Italy, the most non-compliant country, out of the equation, that percentage rises to 75.

The group points to some of the results of that aid: malaria-related deaths have been cut in half and the number of Africans with access to live-saving AIDS medication has jumped from 60,000 to 3 million.

“We need to reflect on what’s working,” in an effort to apply those successful models to unfulfilled pledges, says Erin Thornton, ONE’s global policy director.

The group has developed so-called TRACK principles to help countries make commitments they will keep. For fulfillment to have a chance, the group says, the commitment must be transparent and results-oriented, and there must be a way of measuring whether it’s been kept.

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