Rich nations are beginning to listen to the poorest

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The Independent Online

Contrary to the claim made by many of the protesters besieging today's G8 summit in Genoa, this annual circus is beginning to be a tentative but real example of global democracy in action. It is true that a scripted meeting of eight men in suits representing the richest nations of the world (and Russia) behind a four-metre-high steel fence does seem an unlikely forum in which to acknowledge the interests of all the six billion mostly poor people on the planet.

Contrary to the claim made by many of the protesters besieging today's G8 summit in Genoa, this annual circus is beginning to be a tentative but real example of global democracy in action. It is true that a scripted meeting of eight men in suits representing the richest nations of the world (and Russia) behind a four-metre-high steel fence does seem an unlikely forum in which to acknowledge the interests of all the six billion mostly poor people on the planet.

Yet that is precisely what is happening, however imperfectly. The summits began, as the G3, as an informal attempt to co-ordinate policies on currency management and economic growth. Increasingly formalised and institutionalised as a diplomatic and media event, the G7 broadened its agenda to take in a range of other issues, and seven years ago admitted Russia as an eighth member when discussing non-economic matters.

Since then, the summits became the focus not just for anarcho-hooligans but for principled protest on behalf of the world's poor. The most successful of these campaigns, Jubilee 2000, used the leverage gained by media attention to force the pace of debt reform.

It is apparent from the agenda for this year's summit that this modern form of popular pressure has yielded its reward, in that the relief of global poverty and the fight against Aids will be discussed. It may be argued that the likely announcement in tomorrow's communiqué of a billion-dollar fund to tackle Aids, tuberculosis and malaria is a public relations exercise. So it may be, but that is to miss the point. Democracy works by public relations; by politicians' need to be seen to be responding to public opinion enjoying the right to free expression.

Although the future of the Kyoto Protocol is not on the formal agenda, for example, it too is bound to be raised on this highly visible international platform. President Bush has been forced by international opinion to declare before arriving at the summit that "we share the goals of reducing greenhouse gases, even if the Kyoto treaty's methodology needs to be assessed."

It's a small step but, given what the new President said when he first abrogated the Kyoto agreement, it is at least a step that affords encouragement that some kind of deal might emerge from the separate talks on climate change in Bonn.

What has to be done this weekend is to force the pace on a still inexperienced President. The G8 has shown that it can respond to public pressure on world poverty and disease. Now it needs to show that it can do the same for the environment.

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