Promise Keepers

It's time for the leaders of the G-8 nations to live up to their commitment to help the world's poor help themselves.

Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America
Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America

The abrupt announcement by the Obama administration this March that the G-8 summit would be moved from its long-planned downtown Chicago location to the sheltered confines of Camp David caught many observers off guard. Early commentators took the decision as an election-year maneuver to avoid widely anticipated public protests from occupiers and others.

But for those of us who have closely followed the progress of the G-8, particularly in its efforts to address global poverty and hunger, the move was just another worrying signpost along an increasingly meandering and uncertain road. At a time when true leadership and vision to tackle poverty and hunger is most needed, the G-8 appears lost, almost directionless.

The description of what’s at stake, though horrifying, can seem rote. A billion people on the planet — one in seven human beings — are going hungry. Extreme volatility in food, oil prices, and global financial markets as well as increasingly drastic and unpredictable weather are disrupting agriculture systems and local economies. Growing demand for resources and plateauing supplies of food are sending shockwaves through the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Chronic underinvestment in the Sahel region of Africa, for example, means that today communities there are facing the second food crisis in just three years. Even as farmers work to recover from the crisis they weathered in 2010, which impacted more than 10 million people, low rainfall, poor harvests, lack of pasture, and high food prices are combining to put 18 million people at risk of hunger yet again.

A perfect storm is hitting poor communities around the world, causing the kind of hunger that pushes men to leave their families in search of work, forces mothers to choose between food and medicine for their children, and prevents the healthy development of a new generation. It’s the kind of hunger that sparks instability and topples governments.

But none of this is new. In fact, it’s frighteningly similar to the mix of challenges facing the G-8 back in 2009, the last time the summit faced a sudden change in venue. Back then, the change in venue from La Maddalena to L’Aquila, Italy to support redevelopment efforts after the L’Aquila earthquake signaled that G-8 leaders were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work solving big problems. This time, the retreat to inaccessible Camp David could mean the G-8 is taking counsel of its fiscal fears and backtracking from the commitments made at L’Aquila just three years ago.

At the L’Aquila summit, President Barack Obama, then relatively new to the world stage, rallied his fellow leaders of the world’s richest nations to make a promise: If poor countries came up with good plans to help poor farmers grow more and earn more, rich countries would help make it happen. The initiative included a $22 billion financial pledge over three years and a commitment to use the Rome Principles to guide those investments.

Though largely unknown outside a relatively small circle of food security eggheads, the Rome Principles were supposed to show that the L’Aquila Initiative would be more than just public relations. It was pitched as a serious approach to deliver the most effective aid possible, starting with a country’s own long-term plan to fight hunger. Delivering aid from this starting point would address long-term needs in a coordinated way, guided by the principle of "country ownership," which puts poor countries and their people in the driver’s seat of their own collective future. Following these principles would hold G-8 leaders accountable for making sure their aid was aligned with what people in developing countries actually needed, rather than what G-8 leaders felt like giving them.

Three years later, as they announce a new food security initiative to replace the expiring L’Aquila commitments, G-8 nations are failing to live up to their promises. Today, there are at least 30 poor countries that have developed country-led, sustainable, and coordinated plans for food security and agricultural development — just like President Obama and other G-8 leaders challenged them to do in 2009. These projects have been vetted by a multi-donor fund, the Global Agriculture & Food Security Program, and are "shovel ready"; they just need a partner to help get them off the ground. But the G-8’s new food security initiative includes just six of these plans initially, over a period of 10 years, with no financial pledges. This is a far cry from the L’Aquila commitment to deliver $7 billion a year over three years.

The new plan will emphasize private sector initiatives to address complex food security challenges. Indeed, the private sector, especially smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises, can and must play a central role in the development process as an engine of sustainable job creation and broad-based economic growth. Oxfam, for example, engages in these kinds of initiatives — most notably with SwissRe, the Relief Society of Tigray, and others to integrate a risk management "insurance-for-work" program into the Ethiopian government’s pre-existing safety net program, a suggestion that came from farmers.

But there is a temptation — especially during a period of constrained public budgets — to make convenient assumptions about the private sector as a development panacea. Yet there’s is a worrying lack of evidence to support using official development assistance to leverage private finance to fight poverty. A recent report by the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group pointed out that less than half of the International Finance Corporation’s projects actually reached the poor. It is unclear how these private financial institutions or intermediaries are chosen and how the public can effectively track and evaluate the social impact of these interventions. Moreover, the private sector is unlikely to invest in many essential public goods that do not provide short-term returns on investment.

At Camp David, the leaders of the eight richest countries should forge ahead on a more promising path. This will require specific, measureable funding and policy commitments. If they live up to their end of the bargain and support the shovel-ready plans put forward by developing countries, they can help 50 million people lift themselves out of poverty through sustainable smallholder agriculture, and help 15 million children get the nutrients they need to avoid stunting — but only if they are willing to take urgent action to tackle the problem.

To achieve this, a genuine partnership between the G-8 and poor countries is needed, recommitting to the promise made in L’Aquila. The G-8 leaders themselves need to take responsibility for fulfilling their commitments — they can’t pawn it off on others or private enterprise. In the end, just like in L’Aquila, what is needed at Camp David is leadership. In a room filled with the heads of state of the world’s wealthiest countries, I’d sure hope there would be some of that on offer.

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