This year's G8 Summit took place at the secluded Camp David presidential retreat in the mountains of northern Maryland. The G20 Summit took place in Los Cabos, Mexico, the beach resort area at the southern tip of Baja California, where American tourists partied in clubs and frolicked on the beaches while 26 heads of state grappled with the world's most pressing problems.
Apart from the striking difference in venues, there was another huge contrast in the American and Mexican summits -- the level of transparency and the manner in which the two governments managed the process of consulting outside groups, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), otherwise known as civil society. Guess which country had a very transparent and inclusive process, with multiple opportunities for civil society engagement, and which made used a dedicated website and a suite of social media tools, including Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and others, to share information.
If you guessed the United States, you'd be wrong. As a member of the G8/G20 Global Task Force, a group of international NGOs advocating for their issues in the two summits, I saw firsthand that the Obama Administration's management of the G8 process was none of that:
- The U.S. process was secretive, and ignored civil society for months leading up to the summit, then held a series of meetings in the late spring after all the decisions had been made.
- The G8 Summit, originally planned for Chicago, was moved to Camp David at the last minute. The Administration said the move to Camp David was to allow the heads of state to have quality time together, but it also prevented civil society from having any kind of role, making it the first summit in memory closed to civil society.
- For the first time at a G8 or G20 summit, there was no media center, no dedicated G8 website and no social media even though Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment Robert Hormats told us, in a meeting at the State Department in early April, that there would be a media center and a website.
- The Obama Administration did not even release the G8 Accountability Report until after the summit was over, denying NGOs the opportunity for dialogue on the actual progress and weaknesses around the G8 commitments. The two previous G8 accountability reports were released before the summit.
The Mexican presidency of the G20, in contrast, did almost everything right in terms of transparency and engagement with civil society:
- They had a website and suite of social media tools up and running in late 2011.
- At the NGO planning meeting for the two summits in Mexico City in February, the foreign minister and deputy foreign minister (also the Mexican Sherpa), with a dozen senior officials, came to where civil society was meeting and spent two hours with us, hearing our concerns and sharing their thoughts.
- At that meeting, they suggested posting all of our policy papers on their G20 website. And they actually did it...
- There were a variety of other interactions between the G20 and NGOs throughout the process.
- Two days before the summit began, the government hosted a meeting between NGOs and the ministers of foreign affairs, agriculture and economy.
And we had three daily briefings by senior officials of the Mexican government during the summit itself, two of them by the chair of the Development Working Group.
Why was Mexico so good and the U.S. so bad at managing the processes of engaging key stakeholders?
Both countries are having presidential elections this year (Mexico's occurred yesterday and the U.S. will hold theirs in November). The difference is that Mexican President Felipe Calderón has served one six-year term and is prohibited by law from running again and thus has little fear of the political consequences of engaging with NGOs and caring about issues like food security and climate change.
Carlos Zarco, director of Oxfam Mexico, told me that a contributing factor is that some elements of Mexican civil society, tired of feuding with its government, decided to engage this time. Both sides decided it was in their interest to talk.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is in a very competitive election year and may have decided there is little political benefit in engaging with civil society and showing that he cares about development issues, even though he does.
InterAction, the coalition of U.S. NGOs, put out an analysis of the G8 Accountability Report in which it lauded the G8 for "a substantial improvement from the weak 2011 Deaville Accountability Report."(Download file.) But it also chastised the G8 for its lack of openness and inclusion: "Maintaining domestic support for overseas development assistance during these economically challenging times might be easier if the G8 reports were better informed by outside input and gained greater attention."
Follow David J. Olson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidjolson