Germany is taking no risks with security at its summit of the G8 rich nations on the Baltic coast next month.
In a move that trumps even the tough measures of previous summits, it has built a 12km security fence to surround the luxury Heiligendamm hotel where the eight leaders will meet. In addition, in Germany’s biggest such operation in 60 years, 16,000 police and 1,100 soldiers will be ready to fend off threats by militant protesters.
Yet listen for a moment to Bernd Pfaffenbach, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “sherpa”, or personal envoy, in the G8 preparations, and one wonders why the effort is necessary.
“Our policy agenda [for the meeting] provides very few opportunities for non-government organisations to criticise us,” he boasts. He reels off proposals to boost business investment and Aids prevention in Africa, and to help slow the pace of climate change, and praises his “constructive dialogue” with non-governmental organisations pushing environmental, development and other messages.
Such contrasting perspectives reflect the scale of the challenge facing both governments and NGOs ahead of the June 6-8 summit, as they grapple with what has become an important relationship in international policymaking, but one that is also often ambiguous and politically charged.
Martin Kirk of Save the Children, the UK charity, says: “We have made a difference in the past by putting our views to the G8 states but we have to be careful not to be blinded by the glare of the G8’s self-importance.”
The event at which he was speaking, a two-day “G8-NGO dialogue” conference last week in Bonn between 300 international NGO delegates and the eight G8 special envoys, showed how far the relationship has come.
“Anti-globalisation” used to be the rallying cry against the G8, peaking at the 2001 summit in Genoa, Italy, where clashes led to the death of a demonstrator.
In contrast, the NGOs gathered in Bonn talked little about anti-globalisation and condemned the threat of violence from far-left groups against this year's event – threats that partly triggered the fence-building.
But that does not mean they were going soft in their demands or playing down their achievements, say activists. Martin Khor, veteran leader of the Third World Network, a Malaysian NGO, says the choice in recent years of the G8 as a high-profile target for concerted pressure by civil society had paid off, noting that African aid and debt relief had become a “regular fixture of G8 summits”.
Jürgen Maier, chairman of the Bonn event, says: “The same may now occur with climate change.” Equally, the relationship forces some less open governments – such as Russia last year and Japan in 2008 – to listen to NGO arguments even if they largely ignore the advice.
Yet dialogue in itself should not replace results, says Odour Ong’wen of Seatini, a Kenyan economic rights NGO. “The rich world promised 35 years ago to increase aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP and still has not delivered.”
Aid was due to increase sharply after the UK’s Gleneagles summit in 2005 but it in fact fell last year. Reinhard Hermle of Oxfam Germany, the development group, says: “The G8 has to act if its legitimacy is not to be undermined.”
Despite such criticism, Mr Pfaffenbach and his co-sherpas acknowledged that engagement with NGOs has its benefits. Adding more emotive issues to the G8’s traditionally dry economic agenda adds to the elite club’s legitimacy.
Indeed, Ms Merkel’s decision to revise her original plan to focus only on world economics occurred partly because NGOs had successfully turned climate and Africa into mainstream G8 agenda items, officials admit.
NGO pressure can sometimes help governments by creating public readiness to accept change – and is often good for politicians’ popularity ratings. Ms Merkel’s recent decisions to pose with Bono, the rock star turned activist, and to propose extra help for female Aids victims in Africa fit this mould, NGOs argue.
Yet given such influence, campaign groups also need to be aware of the pitfalls of their power, says Mr Kirk. There is a danger that, encouraged by NGOs, the G8 will “overstretch” to tackle detailed issues beyond their remit. On healthcare in developing countries, for instance, the G8 should “stick to shaping the international framework for care delivery, rather than tinker with provision systems in individual countries”, he says.
Peter Ritchie, a climate expert at London’s Chatham House think-tank who has followed recent cycles of G8-NGO consultations, says the lesson is that NGOs can bring change but they must be clear about their own and the governments’ objectives.
“Ultimately, NGOs are rarely pushing governments towards decisions they don’t want to take,” Mr Ritchie adds.