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Broken promises

The G8 excels at issuing world-improving pledges, such as the recent $20 billion commitment to fight hunger. The trouble is, after the media is gone, these promises are often unfulfilled.

(photo by Arko Datta / Reuters)

ROME – Last month’s Group of Eight summit fell so short of expectations that the viability G8 itself was called into question. But there was one eye-catching outcome: a pledge of $20 billion to help shore up food production in the poorest parts of the world.


On the surface, the promise was worthy of the attention it garnered. The money — which easily surpassed an early target of $15 billion — is to be paid out over three years to help fund sustainable agriculture and provide emergency food aid in underdeveloped areas in Africa and Asia.


U.S. President Barack Obama said the plan was “a commitment to reform the way the international community approaches food security.” Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy, which hosted the summit, dubbed the agreement “historic” and “essential.” Activists were pleased as well. Rock star-turned-activist Bono called it “both smart and innovative.”


Peter McPherson, co-chair of the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, said “The G8 initiative is exactly the kind and the scope of aid that poor countries need.”


The trouble is, the program may never bear fruit. That’s because the G8 has a history of failing to fulfill its commitments.


The University of Toronto’s G8 Research Group has been tracking the broken promises since 1996. The problem, they say, is worse than most people realize. (You can see some of the data here.)


“No area has a zero-percent compliance score, since something is always done,” said Allison Martell, compliance director for the University of Toronto’s G8 Research Group. “But there are also very few issues where you can check the box and say ‘yes, the G8 promised to do that and it was done.’ Most goals are left only partially completed.” (Please see our list of upcoming failures, at the bottom of the article.)


Exact compliance figures are difficult to calculate, for a variety of reasons. Some countries would have taken agreed-to steps anyway, which are hard to distinguish from the blockbuster announcements made at the summits. On the other hand, many commitments are too vague to determine whether they were actually kept. In 2006, for example, G8 leaders vowed to work toward increasing economic transparency worldwide. In 2007, they promised to improve access to health care around the world.


There are, however, clear trends in terms of the performance of specific G8 countries, specific topics, and even individual summits.


Over the dozen years ending just before this year’s summit, Britain had the highest compliance scores among G8 countries; Italy had the lowest. Over the same span, promises related to terrorism have had the greatest compliance. Economic initiatives have been among the weakest.


In general, more recent summits have yielded more measurable promises than older ones, with the last four (2005-2008) producing an average of 21 commitments, compared to an average of around 8 for the four at the start of the period (1997-2000). As a rule, the University of Toronto statistics show that countries generally become more compliant leading up to a summit they host, and less compliant after that summit passed.


The broader trends are often contradicted in the short term. It is true, for example, that the follow-through on economic projects has been lackluster, but since the world economic turmoil started last year, compliance in this area has improved dramatically, making it one of the top priorities for countries. The U.S., which is historically the fourth most compliant G8 member state, tied Britain as the most compliant over the year leading up to July’s meetings in L’Aquila.


The G8 recognizes the need to keep better records of which countries fulfill their commitments. This year, it announced plans to start measuring compliance. Don’t expect a bout of naming and shaming however: the results will not be released to the public. That, according to noted economist Fiorella Kostoris, could be a mistake.


“There are a lot of political games in play because the promises make the headlines but when they are not met they mostly go unreported,” said Kostoris, who works with Rome’s Sapienza University as well as the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. “That won’t be changed until there’s more transparency and people start to push their governments to do what they promise to do.”


What the G8 says — and does:

Below are five key promises, all with a 2010 deadline, as compiled by the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, along with the latest news on compliance. It is unlikely that any of them have a realistic chance of being met by the time the meetings get underway next July in Ontario.


Pledge: In 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was written, the then-G7 promised to develop to targets that would result in the worldwide reduction of greenhouse gasses by 2010. Result: Worldwide greenhouse gas emissions have risen every year since the promise was made, and emissions from the seven countries that agreed to the goal are up by an average of 12% compared to the 1990 baseline year. The latest goals envision emissions peaking in 2020 or 2025, not 2010.


Pledge: In 2000, leaders vowed to reduce the number of young people with HIV/AIDS by a quarter by 2010. Five years later, the group promised to work to make access to AIDS treatments universal in Africa by 2010. Result: The number of AIDS cases worldwide continues to rise. The 15-to-24-year-old age group the G8 said it would focus on in 2000 is the fastest growing demographic. The number of AIDS cases shows signs of stabilizing at a very high level, but relatively few Africans have access to the newest AIDS treatments.


Pledge: In 2002, the G8 agreed to prepare African military corps to oversee domestic and regional peacekeeping efforts on the continent by 2010. Two years later, the G8 revisited the goal, setting a target of having 75,000 peacekeepers in place by 2010. Result: So far, the number of African peacekeepers total just 22,500, far short of the target. But this year’s G8 talks revisited the subject: leaders emphasized the need to include regional peacekeeping capabilities into any plans for world security. They made no direct reference to the 2010 targets.


Pledge: In 2008, the G8 said it strongly supported the launching of 20 large-scale Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects by 2010, and said the technology should be in broad deployment by 2020. CCS is an innovative technology that takes the greenhouse gasses produced during power generation and pumps and stores them underground. Result: The more vague 2020 target still remains viable, but as of the end of last year, only three large-scale CCS projects, along with a half dozen smaller pilot projects, were in operation. At least 20 projects are in some state of development and could come online by 2020 at the latest.


Pledge: Also in 2008, the G8 called on countries to fully implement the rules for economic transparency, including exchanging tax information as stipulated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It also called for the OECD to strengthen its work on tax evasion and tax havens. Result: The OECD did vote in May to clamp down on international tax evasion. As such, several microstates like San Marino and Monaco have started taking steps to come into line regarding economic transparency rather than putting reciprocal tax agreements they have with their larger neighbors at risk. But there has been little movement among larger countries that had not already agreed to OECD standards by 2008 to do so.