G8: Our world in the balance

Over the next week, humanity's attention will be focused to an extraordinary degree on a meeting in Scotland (starting on Wednesday) between nine middle-aged men. But what is actually at stake? Paul Vallely sets the scene for a historic G8 summit
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Indy Politics

It will be like the setting for the next Richard Curtis film. In Hyde Park tomorrow, 100,000 people will gather with some of the biggest names in the pop world for Live8. Meanwhile, across London, in a secret location, eight men are engaged in a last, desperate meeting.

They are the G8 sherpas, senior civil servants whose job over the past few months has been to reach the detailed agreement for next week's G8 summit. And they should not be holding the meeting – which begins today – at all.

Often at this stage in the international negotiations surrounding a G8 summit, things are pretty much sorted by these most trusted characters (in Britain's case, the sherpa is Sir Michael Jay KCMG, Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). All that the eight most powerful people in the world have to do is turn up, drink the fine wine, chat about the latest pressing international issue and smile for the photocalls.

Not this time. This last-minute sherpa meeting was not on the original schedule. "Things are going pretty close to the wire," one source close to the negotiations said. A lot will be left for the leaders themselves to bargain over next week.

The summit has two subjects, designated by Tony Blair, who is this year's G8 chairman: Africa and climate change. "On both we haven't got agreement. There is still lots in square brackets," an insider said, referring to the negotiating process whereby a draft communiqué is drawn up but with square brackets around any section of the text which one of the eight nations does not yet accept.

Of Britain's two chosen subjects, progress is far more likely on Africa. "We have agreement that Africa is important, that what is needed is a comprehensive package, and that this does mean more money," said one insider.

Indeed, significant announcements have already been made on much of this, arising out of the G8 negotiation process. Individual nations, including the UK, France, Canada, Germany and Japan, have signed up to doubling aid to Africa over the next three years. The EU has pledged that its members' aid will rise to 0.56 per cent of their national income by 2010 (well on the way to the UN target of 0.7 per cent). "That is big bananas – around $40bn [£22bn] a year extra," said one Treasury figure. "If just half of that went to Africa it would be brilliant."

The rich nations have also already agreed a $40bn package to cancel debt which combines the best of the US and UK proposals – the US wanted total cancellation, not merely debt relief, and the Brits wanted extra funds to be found for the plan, rather than taking the money from existing aid budgets.

"We have a solid foundation to build on now," said one government source. "There is real momentum building and still a hell of a lot to play for."

Tomorrow's Live8 concerts and Bob Geldof's rallying cry for a march by a million people on the summit in Gleneagles have had an impact on the process even before they happen. "Live8 has been hugely important already," said one source close to the negotiations. "It's had a massive impact in other countries like Germany and America where there's been a huge amount of media coverage and pressure. The sherpas are now talking about things that weren't on their agenda before."

"The tone of the debate has changed," said another insider. "Attitudes have changed. Things are coming together."

The same cannot be said on climate change. A gulf still exists between Britain and the US on this. The UK team has been cataloguing the economic, human and geographic cost of global warming and the prospect of sea-level rises, heat waves and more floods, droughts, disease and famine. President George Bush, by contrast, barely admits that the problem of climate change exists.

A leaked copy of the section of the communiqué on climate change last month showed that Britain's plans on this, pledging money for various projects, had been watered down in the face of American opposition. Even the words "our world is warming" were in square brackets. "There's not much sense of any real progress since," one insider said this week. The draft communiqué instead places emphasis on the US strategy of pouring money into new energy technologies in place of a binding international accord.

China and India have been invited to attend the climate change part of the G8 discussions in the hope that "some form of continuing process" could be agreed. One of the main US objections to the Kyoto agreement was that it left rapidly developing economies such as China and India out of the picture.

"We've won the argument on Africa, and have only to agree on how much money," said one Whitehall insider. "On climate change the argument hasn't even taken place."

But reaching agreement on the money for Africa is not an easy task. There are problems again with Washington which is not convinced that governance has improved as much as Tony Blair's Commission for Africa concludes, nor that the continent can yet quite absorb a doubling of aid. Mr Bush has promised more aid but "we want a significant amount more", said one British government official.

It could happen. The US President is being prodded by his wife, Laura, who is to tour Africa later this month and has a special concern for girls' education. He is also being pressed by his trusted adviser, Paul Wolfowitz, who recently took over as president of the World Bank. After a visit to Africa last month, Mr Wolfowitz announced that real change is occurring in Africa and that aid should be increased. He will attend the summit to say the Bank is prepared to raise its game in Africa and that G8 nations should do the same.

In Europe, Germany and Italy, which both have pressing budgetary problems, have to be worked on but France is on board. The shenanigans over the EU budget haven't coloured the French view on Africa. "We're not seeing any problems on Africa from President [Jacques] Chirac," said one British diplomat. "People in the Elysée Palace are committed to this. There's a general recognition that Africa is too important to get caught up in an EU squabble. France is our biggest ally."

Out of all that, to finance the $50bn a year package for Africa, Britain hopes to get each G8 nation either to buy into Gordon Brown's International Finance Facility or the French idea of a levy on air flights, or to come up with its own mechanism for increasing aid.

But the sticking points are not only over cash. Square brackets still surround other Commission for Africa recommendations on improving African governance and fighting corruption, repatriating stolen assets stashed in Western banks and on ratifying the UN Convention on Corruption. No agreement has yet been reached on the proposed international treaty to control the flow of small arms to Africa, nor on the level of support for the African Union's peacekeeping force.

The most difficult sticking point is on trade. Detailed negotiations are a matter for the World Trade Organisation in December in Hong Kong. But the British negotiators have been pushing for the G8 to send a signal to the WTO that the talks must produce a result that is biased towards Africa. They are also pressing for a symbolic announcement, such as fixing a date to end subsidies on rich countries' exports.

So what will be the outcome? The best result might include the following elements. That the EU confirms that half its increased aid will go to Africa. That the US announces a plan to make its under-performing new aid fund, the Millennium Challenge Account, work – and adds another $5bn or $6bn to its aid spending. That, rather than announcing aid totals, fixed sums are set against particular programmes – on infrastructure, Aids, malaria and the training of health workers. That a strong emphasis be placed on supporting the African Union and its Nepad (New Partnership for Africa's Development) programme. That specific shifts on trade rules (on improving Africa's access to rich nations' markets) are announced. That help be given to build Africa's capacity to trade more.

The worst result would be that not much more is achieved than has already been announced. "We've already got a lot for Africa through the G8 process," said one insider. "Tactically we could have kept it all for Gleneagles, and it may turn out we have shot ourselves in the foot by announcing it early. But we wanted to clear the decks for more progress. And we're still hopeful. We won't get a chance like this again."

But climate change looks set to be the big disappointment. The negotiators have not given up. Britain hopes to secure a G8 commitment to push forward projects to support the use of cleaner forms of power, presenting them to the US as a way of creating business opportunities as well as saving the planet. "Even though there's no agreement on the science, we might at least agree on a way forward," said one source. "That would be a kind of success. We always knew that climate change would be a long haul."

Perhaps, in putting two things on the table, it was inevitable that climate change would be traded off against Africa. Some campaigners have insisted that they are interlinked, and that whatever is done for Africa will be a waste of time without progress on climate change. "That's a nonsense argument," said one senior official. "Climate change matters – Africa is feeling its effects now – but the benefits of change are 40 or 50 years down the track. By contrast, the Commission for Africa recommendations, if implemented, could make a huge difference to Africa within 20 years." Action on malaria and Aids can produce results in a very short time, as can resolving conflict and improving governance. Even improvements to infrastructure will be felt in the medium term.

"But the PM really wanted both," one insider said. Negotiators have been told not to agree the deletion of any of the square-brackets material at today's meeting. "Most of the important stuff is still in there, even if it is in brackets," said one source close to the negotiations. "I have told them: 'Whatever you do, don't agree to removing any of it. Leave it in brackets and let the PM take it to the table.' He's probably the best negotiator of all of them."

The message from the crowds in Hyde Park, and across the world, will be that Mr Blair should, in the words of tomorrow's Live8 programme, brook no compromise.