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International Affairs Editor

G20: “Feeding crumbs to the poor”

Le 05-11-2011

Greece never happened.

Or rather, Greek prime minister George Papandreou’s bolt-out-of-the-blue brainstorm to put Greece’s rescue plan to a democratic vote of the hoi polloi (an ancient Greek term meaning “the majority”, or “the masses”) was never, ever (at all) an issue at this G20 summit on the French Riviera.

At least that’s what you might be forgiven for thinking if you were a Martian who landed in Cannes just in time to pick up a copy of the leaders’ final communiqué.

Greece is mentioned just once in the six-page, 33-point document - a document that is the politicians’ Holy Grail of noble intentions for all the world’s ills.

That’s right, once.

And that passing nod is not to the referendum gambit that shook this G20 to its core - and which prompted a rare pre-summit scolding of Papandreou by France and Germany.

Rather, the fleeting reference is to a decision taken by European leaders in Brussels a week before the G20 “to restore debt sustainability in Greece”.

Yet if our Martian bothered to turn on a TV, check a G20-related hashtag on twitter, or (if we’re talking about a more Luddite Martian), scan a newspaper at the local kiosque, he might get a very different picture.

A global disappointment

Papandreou’s political panic attack , and its potential to go viral across the euro zone, didn’t just dominate this summit.

It practically eclipsed every other issue that was meant to be on the agenda of a grouping that represents 85% of the world’s economy: agriculture, aid to small farmers, food price volatility, bank regulation, climate change, tax havens…You name the issue, chances are it was eclipsed.

Non-governmental organisations who were out in force during the G20, mingling with the hundreds of captive international journalists (for whom these hermetically sealed G20 summits are often akin to house arrest), the summit was an unmitigated disappointment.

“As we came into Cannes, we saw all these messages all over the place saying that ‘History is being written in Cannes’, “ said Marta Benavides, a native of El Salvador who works with Global Call to Action Against Poverty. “Who’s writing it, and for whom, and for what? That’s the question that we have.”

Soren Ambrose, of Action Aid, was even blunter.

He said the G20 was likely to end up marginalising the concerns that are foremost on the minds of the world’s poorest people.

“There’s a full, hearty meal for Greece and the other countries that are in the G20 in the communiqué, but the developing world, the impoverished people, are again being fed crumbs,” Ambrose said.

It’s perhaps tempting to roll your eyes and dismiss the NGOs as chronic carpers whose idealism blinds them to the hard-boiled realities of high-level global summiteering.

But the fact is, none of the development workers with whom I spoke denied the pressing need to address Europe’s debt issues.

Doing things the old way

What riles them, instead, is a sense that these G20 summits, however well-intentioned, often end up failing to get their priorities straight.

People and nature, NOT banks, should be the real focus of the G20, goes their message.

“We are in this beautiful, sophisticated city [Cannes]. And I’m afraid that this summit will be known as a missed opportunity, “ said Mauricio Cunha, of World Vision Brazil. “Instead of ‘New World, New Ideas’,” he added, referring to the French-hosted G20’s ubiquitous slogan, “we are still addressing problems the old way.”

What they really want to see is a focus on longer-term solutions rather than on what one activist sees as “narrow, short-term fixes”.

When asked at his closing press conference how he responds to NGOs who say they are dismayed at the summit’s final results, the French president asserted that he shared their sentiments.

But a moment later, he was back on the defensive, asserting that the development community was overlooking tangible progress in other areas. Notably, signs that more and more countries (including Brazil, Argentina, and maybe even the US) are warming to the idea of a financial transaction tax to raise funds to help fight poverty, prevent disease and promote development.

But the gap between aspirations and implementation is still a gaping one.

Some express hope that Mexico’s forthcoming presidency of the G20 will draw more attention to the needs of a planet in which 925 million people go to bed hungry every night, and where lack of development aid often means the difference between peace and war.

But I fear that all the austerity and budget-slashing we’re seeing across the rich world these days will lead to a further contraction in growth that bodes ill for the world’s poorest.

NGOs warn that while private sector initiatives are fine and well, only a strong public sector can provide the underpinnings of solid social protections for the billions on Earth who lack them.

But getting there would mean a whole new G20 paradigm, a sort of parallel-universe summit in which the world’s leaders focused compulsively on poverty, health, food security and green investment, eclipsing “less important’ issues such as banks and bailouts.