It has become to fashionable to say that G8 meetings never achieve anything. It is also incorrect. Civil society campaigners have made use of G8 meetings in the past to achieve major steps forward on debt, on access to HIV/AIDS treatment, and on maternal and child health. But whereas, in the past, campaigners have tended to focus on urging leaders getting out their cheque books, and though money can and does save lives, this year campaigners are much more focused on calling on the G8 to rewrite their rule book, to address the causes of hunger and not only the symptoms.
The G8’s role is not to decide for the world, only to agree what they will do themselves. And so it is right that the UK hosts have described the meeting as about “Putting our own house in order”. And the UK, to their credit, have taken on serious core issues in putting the problems of land grabs and tax dodging at the heart of the discussions, and highlighting transparency as key to the solution. But to actually help poor people the leaders will need to take bold action. And what is on the table at present is not ambitious enough to offer real hope to the millions of people whom land grabs and tax dodging leave impoverished and hungry.
Of course, it’s easy for NGOs to call for more ambition. As a British Government official once joked to me, “even when we deliver a massive result, Oxfam say we need to achieve 10% more.” (To which my initial reaction was to think: “Oh no! Only 10%?”) So rather than just call out “Higher, Higher!” it’s only fair that we campaigners say what success would look like. Here then is a sketch of what I think success would mean on two of the big issues, land grabbing and tax dodging. By this I don’t mean what is needed to fix these challenges – I mean only what the G8 meeting would need to do to start to fix them.
On land, success at the G8 would include a land transparency initiative, and regulatory guidance to G8 companies and investors, so that the G8 is not complicit in land grabbing. As French Development Minister Pascal Canfin said this week, “Without transparency and without protections, land investment can end up as looting. Where the Voluntary Guidelines are not being followed, land investment shouldn’t follow.”
On tax, success at the G8 would include a public registry of the ultimate owners of offshore assets, a deal on sharing of tax information not only between rich countries but with the poorest countries too, and – as they hold one third of the offshore wealth – these agreements must include, in full, all the British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. If the British Prime Minister and other G8 leaders deliver on this they will have sided with tax justice.
At the kids’ group I teach in church, I asked everyone what they could do to help other people. “I’ll share my stuff,” said one; “I’ll help with the cooking,” said another. Then one boy said, “I’ll stop hurting my brothers and sisters.” It wasn’t the answer we’d expected, but reflecting on it, it was an excellent one. And, on land grabbing and tax dodging, an appropriate ambition for the world’s richest countries, one that will need a step up in the negotiations to achieve. “Primum non nocere.” First, do no harm.