The G8 summit - more than just chat and flowery shirts

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What did the Japanese people get for the half billion pounds their government spent on the G8 jolly in Okinawa, which ended yesterday? More importantly, what did the people of the world, especially the poorer parts of it, get for the money?

What did the Japanese people get for the half billion pounds their government spent on the G8 jolly in Okinawa, which ended yesterday? More importantly, what did the people of the world, especially the poorer parts of it, get for the money?

Well, it puts the three-quarters of a billion (and rising) which Tony Blair spent on the Millennium Dome in a bit of perspective. The island of Okinawa gets a bit of a brush-up and some brand new conference facilities. And western commentators, including on these pages, have been telling the Japanese for years that the solution to the problems of economic stagnation is for their government to spend, spend, spend.

Nor should we be too cynical about the G8 itself. It is easy enough to take pot-shots at the great travelling circus, where the communiqué has been drafted in advance - these guys do have telephones, fax machines and computers, after all - and the only purpose of a face-to-face is a word in the ear about some big contract and a photo-opportunity in a flowery shirt.

And yet, on the old jaw-jaw principle, it must be a good thing that world leaders meet in person regularly. Even those who castigate the G8 for moving too slowly on debt relief must acknowledge that the focus for their lobbying provided by the G8 in Birmingham two years ago helped raise the salience of the issue. That is all, realistically, that we can expect of G8 summits: it may not seem much, but the symbolism of the world's leaders coming together to unite rhetorically on some of the pressing problems facing the peoples of the globe should not be underestimated.

Since the cold war, when the threat of major war-war has been lower than it was for most of the last century, the G8 was right to concentrate on the interconnected problems of poverty, world trade, science and disease. All of these are difficult problems, none of them amenable to instant solutions, whether devised in face-to-face chats between world leaders or in months of hard slog in committees of experts.

The debt-relief issue provides some hope that some good will come of the talk in the long run. The amount of money freed up for the poorest countries of the world so far is still disappointing. It will come, but only if world leaders meet and talk and make promises in blazes of publicity to which we can hold them.

"Now that we've reached a globalised economy," as Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato said yesterday, "we must pursue the globalisation of democracy."

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