The G-8 and G-20: Translating Documents Into Action

07/07/2010 10:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The G-8 and newly relevant G-20 summit meetings generated a lot of documents. Documents which evaluate and discuss where we are and where we should be on a myriad of global development challenges. The Muskoka Declaration Recovery and New Beginnings reaffirms the G-8 commitments against the backdrop of the world's economic crisis and indicates the G-20 is now the go-to group for solving our global financial woes.

This year is considered a milestone year for measurement because its five years away from the magic number of 2015, the target date to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs are supposed to reduce extreme poverty by finding ways to increase access to basic human services such as healthcare, education, economic development and a clean environment.

The overall conclusions are what one would expect. The Muskoka Accountability Report declares that "In some areas, the G8 can point to considerable success; in others, it has further to go to fully deliver on its promises."

The Muskoka Declaration specifically calls for increased attention to the MDGs pertaining to improving maternal health and reducing child mortality. It indicates that progress on these two specific goals has been particularly slow. Since one of the most important drivers of the MDGs is to rapidly accelerate the state of vulnerable populations, this is again, an expected conclusion. From reports of governments, international organizations, and civil society generally, it is safe to conclude that progress on each of the MDGs, especially if we actually expect to achieve them in the next five years, has been too slow.

There are calls for new commitments, new strategies and most all, more money from the G-8 countries. When it comes to development, this is the common call. The Muskoka and Toronto Summit documents also use the term "accountability" a great deal. G-8 governments should be held accountable for their monetary commitments as well as debt forgiveness. Some of the group has been patted on the back for meeting their commitments as best they can, and others have been called out for falling short.

The amount of funding from the G-8 countries certainly is important because it is what can lead to supplying the basic necessities of life for vulnerable populations. It is also important in its symbolism -- that the heads of state convening as the G-8 and representing their populations have declared that we believe it is vital to better the world for everyone in it.

What is equally important, but not nearly as prevalent in the accountability discussion is the responsibility of recipient countries. There is some mention throughout the documents of "country ownership" which can mean many things. Most commonly, it implies some input by the aid-recipient country on how the resources should be used. It also soft-peddles the concept that responsibility on the part of the recipient country will ultimately determine if the aid does any good or not.

Economist, Willem Buiter, wrote a paper six years ago now, titled "Country Ownership: A Term Whose Time Has Gone." His paper indicates:

'Country ownership' may have been a useful term at some point. Regrettably, it has been used and abused in so many ways to gloss over realities deemed uncomfortable and to create a pleasant buzz to distract the uninformed and unwary, that it now needs to be put out of its misery.

We need to move beyond the polite concept of suggesting recipient nations "own" programs and have input. Rather, we should be asking them to determine what needs to be done and then requiring a commitment to demonstrate fully that aid funds are being used to do it.

Obviously, monetary amounts are and always will be significant. Every year, there will be headlines quoting the development world as saying that the less than 1% of national budgets going to the cause is not enough, and as many calls from those who feel domestic needs are underfunded as saying it is too much.

Earlier this month, U.S. House appropriators cut President Obama's International Affairs budget request by $4 billion, which means little to a U.S. population that is still struggling to find jobs and pay mortgages. Perhaps the right middle ground is to focus more on what happens to resources and what they accomplish. If there were more measurement of results and demonstration of why development should matter to all of us, then we could bridge the understanding gap.

And demonstrating results will require a greater emphasis on accountability from recipient governments. The real beneficiaries of this sort of accountability will be the aid dependent populations. At some point, nations in need of G-8 funding have to be left in control of their own fates and futures. This will be the only way to achieve the real goals of development, which should be to free aid dependent nations of their reliance on monies and declarations from the G-8.

There are important voices calling for focus on both the commitments of the donor countries as well as responsibility of the recipients. Mo Ibrahim is quoted in the opening of ONE's Data Report on Monitoring G-8 Promises to Africa, as saying:

Aid is a vital catalyst for development, supporting people to live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives. But ultimately, I think the main objective of aid is to eliminate the future need for aid. To that end, I hope that aid can be better targeted and delivered.

The post G-8 statement from the White House also moves in this direction. President Obama's "A New Approach to Advancing Development" indicates the new policy will "Hold all Aid Recipients Accountable" and that "The U.S. will place a premium on partnering with countries that are well governed and will work to strengthen their institutions and support their development policies." When implementing his new development strategy, these should be the key principles on which the President focuses, because they are what will ultimately achieve the goals of his policy.

The evolution of the G-20 illustrates that several global economies have and are reducing their need for aid, and in turn, becoming more serious players in the world market. The "plus 12" economies joining the original G-8 to address the global financial crisis came to further conclusions about the state of the world. The tenor of these conclusions was similar to the G-8, "Our efforts to date have borne good results" begins paragraph 3 of the Toronto Summit Declaration. "But serious challenges remain," starts paragraph 4.

Although the G-20 is considered an "economic" grouping, in reality, it is the body whose work will ultimately have greater impact on the political, social and health issues that the G-8 discusses. At the end of the day, strong economies coupled with transparent policies are what will enable populations to move up their standards of living overall. The G-20's forward look that "Narrowing the development gap and reducing poverty are integral to our broader objective of achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth and ensuring a more robust and resilient global economy for all," is even more relevant if reversed -- a resilient global economy for all will be a critical factor when narrowing the development gap and reducing poverty.

We will expect the next set of documents and declarations in September from the meetings of the United Nations including the Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, and then again from the G-8 and G-20 in November. In the meantime, let's hope that the current documents actually translate into action and reality.