Celebrities rail against Group of Eight

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It stretches the most elastic mind to envisage the collective wrath of Scarlett Johansson, Annie Lennox, Bill Nighy, Kristin Davis and Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan, but it descended on the heads of the Group of Eight at the weekend.

The beleaguered group has broken its promise to increase development aid, and a band of campaigning celebrities wrote a cross letter to complain.

It is not clear why they bothered. Most of the G8 members began to renege on their implausible promise to double aid to Africa as soon as they signed it, back in the heady days of 2005 at its gathering at Gleneagles in Scotland. The rise of the G20 during the global financial crisis was always likely to push aside the older and smaller grouping. But even before the crisis, the G8’s transmutation from a steering group for the world economy to a forum for grandstanding about international development was already eroding its credibility.

The obsolescence of the G8 has long been discussed during interminable and inconclusive international gatherings. It became increasingly absurd to discuss various issues – the global economy, finance, trade, geopolitics, energy, terrorism – with the behemoths of the emerging market world absent. The G8’s other role, as a geopolitical club of rich democracies, was undermined by the presence of Russia, which is neither.

One by one, those central issues migrated to the G20. Paradoxically, given its composition, the G8 responded by focusing on development issues affecting the poorest countries. Sadly these are the most susceptible to posturing and the substitution of pieties for action. As Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development in Washington, puts it: “All the G8 really does in development is aid, and it doesn’t do that very well.”

The G8’s relationship with aid recipients in the developing world is that of a dysfunctional and abusive spouse. It promises good behaviour, reneges and then vows to be better next time. The Gleneagles targets are supposed to be met this year, but the G8 has got less than half way to its goal of $25bn more for Africa. Its response this weekend was to cut all mention of the goals from its communiqué and instead launch yet another mini-initiative, this one on maternal health.

The Canadian hosts insisted it involved “new money”. But on closer examination, at least in those countries like the UK honest enough to answer the question clearly, this turned out to mean money not previously labelled as assistance for maternal health. There was no guarantee of a net addition to overall aid budgets.

In many cases, fulfilling a G8 initiative to fund a particular sector can be accomplished simply by ticking a different box on the reporting form that donors send to the aid scorekeepers at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Not only that, but the “initiativitis” that produces a new focus each year – food security in 2009, maternal health in 2010 – encourages aid agencies to splinter into single-issue interest groups fighting zero-sum battles over a fixed pot of money.

Canada is keen to maintain the relevance of the G8: it has more salience there than in the G20. But with emerging market countries such as China becoming aid donors rather than recipients, it seems inevitable that development issues will move to the larger forum.

A community of campaigners is being forced into a rethink. Even without the rise of the G20, the returns to be gained from cajoling and criticising the G8 were increasingly questionable. Intensive lobbying by development advocates and celebrity campaigners extracted plenty of promises but not commitments that reliably bound group members.

The G8’s true accountability is accurately illustrated by the fact that Silvio Berlusconi, whose Italian government is the furthest behind its Gleneagles commitments, has suffered no political damage as a consequence. In a poignant irony, Mr Berlusconi is the only signatory of the 2005 communiqué still in office today. Campaigners are outraged: Bono and Bob Geldof, his fellow rock star campaigner, have repeatedly called for Italy to be kicked out of the G8. But on the strength of the group’s performance, it is a wonder why anyone would think expulsion to be a blow to national pride.

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