Abolish this annual festival of hypocrisy

DINNER is the highlight of a G8 summit. Attempts at tackling world poverty may come to nothing, but the host country will at least lay on a world-class supper for the world leaders and about 5,000 hangers-on.

The menu for today’s gathering in Sea Island, Georgia, has not been released yet, but George Bush would be hard-pressed to beat Jacques Chirac’s banquet beside Lake Geneva which the French taxpayer laid on. African leaders, who came asking for help tackling AIDS, were instead given a five-course meal and sent home with a vacuous communiqu. This shameful event encapsulates why the G8 must now be abolished.

What started off as an economic idea-sharing session in 1975 has become an annual festival of hypocrisy, with the leaders incarcerating themselves in a luxury resort chosen for its safe distance from protesters.

Every year, the same formula applies. World leaders are invited from what are supposed to be the world’s richest countries and declare they will end world poverty or hunger. They then make pledges which almost none of them honour.

Having dealt with hunger and disease last year, the G8 leaders now want to introduce democracy to the Middle East. Laughably, this will be done by means of a communiqu to be spat out of their luxury hotel at some point. The outrage in the Arab world has been as ferocious as it was predictable. The leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Tunisia and Morocco have rejected guest invitations to Sea Island, many furious about being "preached to."

Here is the problem. The G8 has gone beyond being useless. It is now rubbing the faces of the poor in the wealth of their rivals and exacerbating the very international tensions which it sets out to relieve.

The annual G8 photocall shows a handful of well-fed men whose countries generate 70 per cent of the world’s wealth. It is logical to assume that, between them, they could throw a bit more money at famine-struck Africa.

But history suggests otherwise. Since it started as the G5, all promises to feed the world have been outweighed by the G8’s track record of failure - a grim tradition which, alas, it honours every year.

In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev came asking for aid to help his rapidly-collapsing Soviet Union. He was turned away and, two months later, fell to a right-wing coup which could well have restored hardline Communism.

In 1993, the Tokyo summit released a declaration to liberalise the world economy. Like the European Union’s Lisbon Process, it came to nothing. Birmingham in 1998 brought promises on debt relief which have not been met.

The real danger is how the G191 nations (ie, the rest of the world) see each of these summits. Instead of seeing individual countries trading with the developing world and working in partnership, they see hypocrisy.

So what has gone wrong? The answer is multi-layered, and it starts with the vanity of politicians. They may have a democratic mandate at home, but the G8 leaders who meet today have absolutely no claim to run the world. Yet this is exactly what they will be seen to be doing when they set out their communiqu to shape up the Arab world - with or without the consent of their leaders. To many, it sounds too much like regime change.

Second, the world’s poverty problem is mainly due to unequal distribution of capitalism. China and India are not growing rich because the G8 has given them money. They’ve set up a market economy: their people are doing the rest.

This - not handouts - is the route to prosperity. Even in the poorest countries, the poor save. Studies show that the value of savings among the poor is 40 times more than all the foreign aid received throughout the post-war world.

Without basic property rights (absent in so much of Africa), this cannot be released. But the G8 perpetuates the myth that the world’s wealth is in the hands of a few, and all depends on whether or not they agree to release it.

The tragedy is that the West has never been doing more to help developing countries - but not through the acts of politicians. World poverty is, right now, being reduced at the fastest rate in history, and it’s thanks to globalisation. Buying cheap imports - kids’ toys from China to shirts from Bangladesh - is spreading the wealth of the West faster than any aid programme ever invented. World poverty has fallen more in the last 30 years than it has in the last 300.

But when the G8 fails to act, it can seem to the outside world that Britain, the US, Canada, France, Italy and Germany have all failed to act - and that their people are turning their backs on the plight of the world outside.

Take last year’s declaration in Evian to "fulfil out shared obligations" on their United Nations commitments on AIDS relief. None of the leaders who turn up in Sea Island today will have honoured that pledge.

None, that is, except Britain. Gordon Brown’s record on eliminating third world debt has been one of the unsung highlights of his time at the Treasury and he has paid up on AIDS, as he promised in Evian.

The UK Chancellor means what he says. The same is not always true for his foreign counterparts, so such summits come to nothing. But it seems to the "G191" that none of the G8 countries has honoured its promise.

The 3 billion Britain has spent on foreign aid every year is easily eclipsed - when it comes to the hearts and minds of the Arab world and African states - by the utter failure of the G8 to agree anything more substantive than a wine list.

Even economically, the G8 is a joke. Why, for example, is Canada in the club while China (whose oil appetite is blamed for causing all these high petrol prices) is not? And what about India or Brazil? One idea is to enlarge this to a G20. Pretty soon, it will be a rival United Nations (but with better lunches) and achieve even less.

In Okinawa, the G8 promised that "no government seriously committed to achieving education for all will be thwarted in its lack of resources". It is hard to point to any hard result of this ideal.

The G8 also promised to "make prevention of armed conflict a high priority issue". Not so high that anyone has intervened in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the unfolding genocide in Sudan.

Three years ago, we could afford to let world leaders meet in luxury, promise the earth, then fail to deliver. Now, we have a war on terrorism to win - and this means winning the hearts and minds of the developing world.

So, we can no longer afford to let G8’s pile of broken promises grow any taller - obscuring the good deeds of peoples, businesses and nation states. After 29 years of failure, it is time to bring this sorry pantomime to a close.

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