Although the recently concluded Summit of the Group of 7 industrialized countries came up with initiatives to reduce the digital divide and to control the spread of infectious diseases, no new initiatives were announced on debt relief for the poor countries, a move which many civil society groups have found to be the single biggest disappointment of the Summit.

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 24July 2000 -- Heaven and hell are both on this earth. When the leaders of the seven most industrialized and richest countries in the world speak - the expectations are that the domain of heaven would extend and that of hell be reduced. The final G-7 Summit outcome, from Okinawa in Japan, gives little hope of having done that.

The July 21-23 meeting of the Group of Eight (G-8) - with Russia included only in the political segments and not in the economic talks - is rich in outpourings of sympathy for the poor. But no bold new initiatives were announced, particularly on the debt front. For many civil society groups that have been fighting hard for additional and meaningful debt relief for poor countries, this was the single biggest disappointment.

There was a silver lining of hope drawn on two particular fronts - closing the digital divide and trying to control the spread of infectious diseases. But again, specific commitments may perhaps come later. While an advisory Task Force is to deliberate on how to close the digital divide, an autumn meeting in Japan will decide on the specifics of how to contain the spread of infectious diseases.

But then it should come as no surprise that the information technology sector as well as the powerful pharmaceutical companies in the developed world - both, respectively, have enormous stakes in reducing the digital divide as well as supplying the market with drugs that are known to contain the killer diseases of poverty - especially HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. But it should also be pointed out that, thanks to globalization and increased travel, the drug-resistant strains of these diseases are already threatening citizens in the North.

Not surprisingly, the G-7 countries have embraced the target of reducing the share of the world’s population living in extreme poverty to half its 1990 level by 2015. This was also in the outcome of the Geneva Social Summit and one of the objectives in the much-criticised “Better World For All’ report. “We welcome the Report on Poverty Reduction by Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which we requested in Cologne, and we look forward to receiving an annual poverty report as we review progress each year in reducing poverty across the globe,” the G-8 Communique said.

In fact, the G-7 pronouncements on their fledgling levels of ODA (Official Development Assistance) sound as if the flow is going to be restricted even further! Moreover, the powerful club of rich nations has decided to untie its aid to the least developed countries, and to achieve that progressively.

“ODA is essential in the fight against poverty,” says the G-8 Communique. “We commit ourselves to strengthening the effectiveness of our ODA in support of countries’ own efforts to tackle poverty, including through national strategies for poverty reduction."

“We will take a long-term approach favouring those countries where governments have demonstrated a commitment to improve the well-being of their people through accountable and transparent management of resources devoted to development. “

“To achieve increased effectiveness of ODA, we resolve to untie our aid to the Least Developed Countries on the basis of progress made in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to date and a fair burden-sharing mechanism that we will agree with our OECD partners. We believe that this agreement should come into effect on 1 January 2002,” the Communique adds. “In the meantime, we urge those countries which maintain low levels of untying of ODA to improve their performance. We will also seek to demonstrate to the public that well-targeted ODA gets results, and on that basis will strive to give increased priority to such assistance. Well co-ordinated assistance is helpful for developing countries and we will consider how best to improve such co-ordination.”

On health, the G-7 countries have committed themselves to working in strengthened partnership with governments, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international organisations, industry (notably pharmaceutical companies), academic institutions, NGOs and other relevant actors in civil society to deliver three critical UN targets: reducing the number of HIV/ AIDS-infected young people by 25% by 2010; reducing TB deaths and prevalence of the disease by 50% by 2010; and reducing the burden of disease associated with malaria by 50% by 2010.

The G-7 have decided to convene a conference in autumn this year in Japan to deliver agreement on a new strategy to harness their commitments. “The conference should look to define the operations of this new partnership, the areas of priority and the timetable for action. Participation of developing country partners and other stakeholders will be essential. We will take stock of progress at the Genoa Summit next year and will also work with the UN to organise a conference in 2001 focusing on strategies to facilitate access to AIDS treatment and care.”

In its section on Biotechnology/food safety, the Communique calls for acceleration of the on-going work in international fora to develop and refine a science-based approach. “In particular, we attach strong importance to the work of the CODEX Alimentarius Commission (CAC), the principal standard-setting body in food safety, and encourage its Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnology to produce a substantial interim report before completion of its mandate in 2003. We also support the efforts of the CAC’s Committee on General Principles to achieve greater global consensus on how precaution should be applied to food safety in circumstances where available scientific information is incomplete or contradictory.”

The G-7 said that policy dialogue, engaging all stakeholders and including both developed and developing countries, must be intensified to advance health protection, facilitate trade, ensure the sound development of biotechnology, and foster consumer confidence and public acceptance. “The report by the OECD Ad Hoc Group on Food Safety and the work of the Task Force for the Safety of Novel Foods and Feeds and the Working Group on Harmonisation of Regulatory Oversight of Biotechnology represent a useful step in this direction. We also encourage the FAO and WHO to organise periodic international meetings of food safety regulators to advance the process of science-based public consultations.”

“In pursuing this dialogue we will pay particular attention to the needs, opportunities and constraints in developing countries,” says the Communique.

The debate on genetically modified (GM) foods also drew comments from President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair as they were posing for photographers before their bilateral meeting on the final day of the Group of Eight Summit in Okinawa. Both leaders seemed to be holding divergent views.

“This tends to be treated as an issue of the interest of the agribusiness companies and earning big profits against food safety or some ultimate impact on biodiversity, which of course also should be studied, “ said President Clinton. “But that’s not the real issue here.  The real issue is, how can you get the best food to the largest number of people in the world at the lowest possible price. That is the real issue. If it’s safe—that’s the big issue."

And then he added, “All the evidence that I’ve seen convinces me, based on what all the scientists now know, that it is. But, of course, every country has to deal with that. But just for example, if we could get more of this golden rice, which is a genetically modified strain of rice, especially rich in vitamin A, out to the developing world, it could save 40,000 lives a day, people that are malnourished and dying.  So this is a big issue, and it seems to me that’s the way we ought to approach it, which is why I think we ought to, of course, be guided by the safety issues, but it ought to be a scientific judgment.”

“I just hope we have an open and a fair debate,” said Mr Tony Blair. “I mean, there are intensely held views on both sides of this argument, but the most important thing is that we get access to the best scientific evidence. Consumers should, of course, know what it is that they’re eating and consuming. But for the consumers to make that judgment properly, they need the best science available. And who knows what in 10, 20, 30 years will be the judgment about this new science.  All I know is that our responsibility as leaders is to say to people, let’s set up the best system, best process available so that you get the real facts—not the prejudices of one side or the commercial interests of one side, but the facts and the science. And then we can make judgments.”

The Communique also calls for a new round of trade negotiations, within the World Trade Organization, “with an ambitious, balanced and inclusive agenda.” And it urges “trade-related capacity building” assistance to developing countries so they can more effectively participate in the global trading system.

The 15-page Communique also endorses the goals of gender equality in schooling by 2005 and universal primary education by 2015. The G-8 called on the international financial institutions, “in partnership with developing countries, to focus on education in their poverty reduction strategies and provide greater assistance for countries with sound education strategies.” It also contains sections on cultural diversity, crime and drugs, aging, environment, conflict prevention, disarmament, non-proliferation and other issues.-SUNS4715

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