Poverty of ideas at 'lobster and caviar' summit

After three days of talking and eating, the rich nations' final communiqué shows a retreat from the debt relief pledges of a year ago
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The Independent Online

A summit needs a good nickname, and it says a lot about the Group of Eight meeting in Okinawa that after three days of lunches, dinners and discussions, nobody could agree on what to call it.

A summit needs a good nickname, and it says a lot about the Group of Eight meeting in Okinawa that after three days of lunches, dinners and discussions, nobody could agree on what to call it.

From the beginning, the Japanese hosts had promoted their events as the "information technology summit", but the idea never really caught on among the other leaders. For Tony Blair, it was all about the developing world, and the obligation of the rich democracies to the poorest countries of Africa, but even he admitted his frustration at how little was achieved on the central issue of debt relief.

Jubilee 2000, the debt relief coalition, called it the "squandered summit"; Oxfam called it the "lobster and caviar summit" after the dinner which summiteers consumed as they discussed questions of hunger and poverty in the Third World. But the truth is that it was about all these things and many more besides. Consequently, it was not really about anything very much at all.

There were no defining moments, no arresting images that summed up the summit's themes and direction. The last day and a half of the summit saw a flurry of lesser announcements and initiatives intended to offset the prevailing atmosphere of disappointment on Friday. But when the final communiqué appeared yesterday afternoon, it was in an atmosphere of scepticism and anti-climax.

In fact, the failure to come up with any dazzling breakthroughs or inspiring promises may have been a wise move: it was the euphoria generated by the 1999 G8 summit in Cologne that gave the leaders their biggest headache in Okinawa.

A year ago, the G8 made its bold promise to bring $100bn of debt relief to 24 of the world's poorest countries by the end of 2000, to abolish the iniquitous arrangement whereby vast sums needed for health care and education are slurped off by rich creditors. "We will be writing off literally billions of dollars worth of debt," Tony Blair said at the time. "I believe this summit will mark probably the biggest step forward that we have seen for many years."

But a year later the debt relief summit has been shown up as a feeble sham.

So far only nine countries have made it through the obstacle course of conditions imposed by the big lenders. When their debts are written off, they will amount to no more than $15bn dollars. Despite a late effort by Mr Blair and President Chirac of France, yesterday's declaration actually steps back from the Cologne promises, expressing an "expectation" that only 20 countries will win debt relief by the year's end and specifies no target figure.

"The final communiqué offers no response to the public outrage at the G8's failure to act," said Ann Pettifor, the director of Jubilee 2000 in Britain. "They have merely repeated their promises of a year ago. They did not keep their promises then. Why should we believe them now?"

The leaders did set other targets. Mr Blair lobbied successfully for an ambitious plan to reduce deaths from tuberculosis and malaria by half within 10 years, and Aids by a quarter. Leaders will aim to get every child into school by 2015.

The World Trade Organisation will meet later this year. One of its goals will be to reduce tariffs that prevent poor countries exporting manufactured goods into the richest markets. Bill Clinton announced an American plan to encourage Third World families to send their children to school, providing $300m for free school lunches.

But the debt relief campaigners say the measures treat symptoms rather than their underlying cause, poverty. The problem, they argue, is not that poor countries do not want to fight Aids or feed schoolchildren, but with $60m of their budgets being spent every single day on interest payments alone, it is not a choice they are capable of making. "These kind of targets are no more than a pipedream without debt cancellation," said Ms Pettifor.

The area that has attracted some of the bitterest criticism during the summit has been information technology. As the host, Japan has identified something it calls the "digital divide" - the potential for further polarisation of rich and poor created by the developing world's inability to make the most of computers and the internet. Japan is therefore promising $18bn dollars of public and private money "to bridge the international information and knowledge divide".

Groups such as Oxfam, Jubilee 2000, Médecins Sans Frontiÿres and the Catholic charity, Cafod, respond that such high-minded goals are absurd in much of the Third World. "To send out computers into the bush, where there are no telephone lines and no reliable electricity, and limited literacy, does not make much sense," says Henry Northover of Cafod.

At the end of the summit, only one leader will walk away entirely satisfied: the G8 newcomer, President Vladimir Putin of Russia. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was metaphorically and literally the unhealthiest of the leaders gathered round the table - a supplicant seeking relief for his own country's debts. By contrast, Mr Putin sailed coolly through the weekend setting out his plans for economic reform, winning help for disposal of weapons plutonium and taking an active part in a martial arts display in the home of karate. "In previous summits, Russia was a guest," said Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission. "Now he is one of us."