Saturday, December 29, 2012

Do global summits help to tackle poverty?

Disappointment at the collective performance of our leaders at global summits goes far beyond the development movement. Eight hundred or more journalists attend the average G20, to shine a spotlight on the failure of the group to fulfil its self-proclaimed mandate to manage the global economy.

These disappointments have deep roots, and there's nothing unique about the current position. They are the product of long-standing weaknesses in the multilateral process, exacerbated by recent shifts in power relations that are present in pretty much every global negotiation.

Few NGOs found much to celebrate at December's COP18 climate talks in Doha. The G8 and the G20 have produced similarly disappointing results in recent years. The Rio+20 summit in June was a particularly egregious example. With 50,000 delegates and campaigners present, not one meaningful new commitment was made other than agreement to develop new global goals. It was agreed after much intensive negotiation that these would be developed by an inter-governmental committee of 30 countries. Six months later it has not yet met, because there is no agreement about who should be on it.

So if you're concerned about global poverty, why bother with global summits?

Summits exist to negotiate global goals and policies, and our view of their utility should depend on their success at doing so. Meaningful commitments are getting rarer; but they do still emerge. Last year, a deal was agreed in Busan, South Korea, on how to make aid more effective by co-operating with new players such as Mexico. The deal was followed this year by a set of agreed indicators for a global monitoring framework for development assistance. And a new set of voluntary guidelines on land tenure was decided by the committee for food security; positive steps that came about in large part as a result of sustained civil society pressure.

As always, this success was a result of influencing negotiations over many months, culminating in the final round of talks in the media spotlight. But there are too few of these advances. Oxfam recently chronicled four years of text but no substantial progress from the G20 on food.

But there's far more to summits than the formal communique. Sometimes the text can obscure the real story and the long-term significance of the meetings. There are three other very good reasons why summits matter.