You Say G-8, I Say G-20: Let’s Not Call the Whole Thing Off

Q1: Why are the G-8 and G-20 leaders meeting in Canada this week, and what do they hope to accomplish?
A1: Canada will be the first country to host the G-8 and G-20 Summits back-to-back (the G-20 will be cochaired with South Korea). To its credit, Canada has worked extensively over the past year to tighten and integrate the agendas for the dual summits. The fragility of the global economy and the coordination of measures to regulate the global financial system will dominate both meetings. It is expected that the G-8 Summit (June 25) will focus on a much broader agenda that encompasses preventing global nuclear proliferation (with a strong focus on Iran and North Korea); strengthening the G-8’s accountability to its past commitments; advancing the G-8’s development agenda, especially maternal and child health, food security, and Africa; reaffirming a commitment to combat climate change; and tackling the global drug trade and its links to terrorism financing. As seen during the last G-20 meeting nine months ago, the G-20 (June 26–27) will continue to focus on reforming the global financial sector, spurring economic growth, and coordinating policies to end stimulus spending. Debate will also center on the need to rebalance global trade (the Chinese decision to allow the renminbi to gradually appreciate is seen as an early victory) and whether to introduce a global bank levy to finance future financial sector rescues (the Europeans support, most other nations do not). As more ominous economic and political clouds appear on the G-8/G-20 horizon—the ongoing European debt crisis, tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, and the ongoing Gulf oil spill—global leaders will be pressed to demonstrate that these summits have the ability to develop shared solutions to complex challenges. In view of the diminishing dynamism within the G-8 itself and the still-to-be-formed mandate, ground rules, and long-term priorities for the G-20, the results are likely to be mixed.
Q2: Why does the G-8 focus on development assistance?
A2: At the 2005 Gleneagles G-8 Summit chaired by the United Kingdom, then Prime Minister Tony Blair won a commitment from the G-8 countries to add $50 billion in new overseas development assistance (ODA) in the next five years ($25 billion to Africa) to accelerate achievement of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In anticipation of the September 2010 UN Summit on the MDGs, Canada prepared the Muskoka Accountability Report, a five-year report card on G-8 member country performance. The aggregate numbers show some significant gains, as well as the corrosive impact of a three-year global recession: G-8 ODA rose substantially but nonetheless fell $18 billion short (in current dollars) of the $50-billion commitment. Aid to Africa increased by $10 billion versus $25 billion. In retrospect, the G-8 hubris of 2005 seems stale. The United States and United Kingdom have been high performers; Italy and Japan stand at the back. The report details major gains in health and support of peacekeeping but low or weak progress in stemming debt levels, mitigating climate change, and promoting trade and regional integration.
At Muskoka, Canada will spearhead a maternal and child health initiative, to which Canada has pledged $1 billion over five years and to which the Obama administration’s Global Health Initiative will add another $0.5 billion per year, when fully funded by Congress. Indeed, 2010 is proving to be the year of maternal and child health, and Muskoka will be part of that surge. Just prior to the G-8/G-20, Melinda Gates announced a Gates Foundation commitment of $1.5 billion. Canada’s success in leveraging substantial new commitments for maternal and child health from within the G-8, other than from the United States and United Kingdom, remains to be proven. Ottawa has been busy soliciting pledges from non-G8 countries Norway, the Netherlands, and New Zealand in hopes of filling out the picture.
Q3: Is the G-8 really that important anymore? Hasn’t the G-20 simply overtaken the G-8 as the institutional framework of choice?
A3: We are in the midst of an ambiguous, fluid transition involving both the G-8 and G-20. This transition will unfold in fits and starts over the next several years.
The G-8 is in a far different place today than the global economic optimism of 2005: there are daunting long-term economic challenges ahead; and debt/deficit and budget woes will dampen enthusiasm for most, but not all, new initiatives. The G-8’s focus has now turned to meeting existing commitments, measuring results, and finding important new development options that have high value and potentially lower cost. Despite this reduction in overall ambition, the G-8 will remain relevant in its role as a driver for international development and global health for the foreseeable future.
The G-20 agenda may migrate inevitably to development and health, security, and climate change if or when its leaders see incentives to widen the agenda beyond technical deliberations and economic crisis management. But this will not happen overnight: it will require converting the G-20 into a more coherent, deliberative body with clearer internal norms and accountability mechanisms; and, it will require that the key emerging economic powers—Brazil, China, India, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and Turkey—reach a consensus that the G-20 is indeed the proper forum to pursue a broader global agenda. Neither requirement has been met thus far. While this transition’s ultimate outcome is neither preordained nor conclusive in direction, it will be a dynamic process to observe.
Heather A. Conley is senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Heather A. Conley