Promise Keepers

It's time for the leaders of the G-8 nations to live up to their commitment to help the world's poor help themselves.

The abrupt announcement by the Obama administration this March that the G-8 summit would be moved from its long-planned downtown Chicago location to the sheltered confines of Camp David caught many observers off guard. Early commentators took the decision as an election-year maneuver to avoid widely anticipated public protests from occupiers and others.

But for those of us who have closely followed the progress of the G-8, particularly in its efforts to address global poverty and hunger, the move was just another worrying signpost along an increasingly meandering and uncertain road. At a time when true leadership and vision to tackle poverty and hunger is most needed, the G-8 appears lost, almost directionless.

The description of what's at stake, though horrifying, can seem rote. A billion people on the planet -- one in seven human beings -- are going hungry. Extreme volatility in food, oil prices, and global financial markets as well as increasingly drastic and unpredictable weather are disrupting agriculture systems and local economies. Growing demand for resources and plateauing supplies of food are sending shockwaves through the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Chronic underinvestment in the Sahel region of Africa, for example, means that today communities there are facing the second food crisis in just three years. Even as farmers work to recover from the crisis they weathered in 2010, which impacted more than 10 million people, low rainfall, poor harvests, lack of pasture, and high food prices are combining to put 18 million people at risk of hunger yet again.

A perfect storm is hitting poor communities around the world, causing the kind of hunger that pushes men to leave their families in search of work, forces mothers to choose between food and medicine for their children, and prevents the healthy development of a new generation. It's the kind of hunger that sparks instability and topples governments.

But none of this is new. In fact, it's frighteningly similar to the mix of challenges facing the G-8 back in 2009, the last time the summit faced a sudden change in venue. Back then, the change in venue from La Maddalena to L'Aquila, Italy to support redevelopment efforts after the L'Aquila earthquake signaled that G-8 leaders were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work solving big problems. This time, the retreat to inaccessible Camp David could mean the G-8 is taking counsel of its fiscal fears and backtracking from the commitments made at L'Aquila just three years ago.

At the L'Aquila summit, President Barack Obama, then relatively new to the world stage, rallied his fellow leaders of the world's richest nations to make a promise: If poor countries came up with good plans to help poor farmers grow more and earn more, rich countries would help make it happen. The initiative included a $22 billion financial pledge over three years and a commitment to use the Rome Principles to guide those investments.

Though largely unknown outside a relatively small circle of food security eggheads, the Rome Principles were supposed to show that the L'Aquila Initiative would be more than just public relations. It was pitched as a serious approach to deliver the most effective aid possible, starting with a country's own long-term plan to fight hunger. Delivering aid from this starting point would address long-term needs in a coordinated way, guided by the principle of "country ownership," which puts poor countries and their people in the driver's seat of their own collective future. Following these principles would hold G-8 leaders accountable for making sure their aid was aligned with what people in developing countries actually needed, rather than what G-8 leaders felt like giving them.

Three years later, as they announce a new food security initiative to replace the expiring L'Aquila commitments, G-8 nations are failing to live up to their promises. Today, there are at least 30 poor countries that have developed country-led, sustainable, and coordinated plans for food security and agricultural development -- just like President Obama and other G-8 leaders challenged them to do in 2009. These projects have been vetted by a multi-donor fund, the Global Agriculture & Food Security Program, and are "shovel ready"; they just need a partner to help get them off the ground. But the G-8's new food security initiative includes just six of these plans initially, over a period of 10 years, with no financial pledges. This is a far cry from the L'Aquila commitment to deliver $7 billion a year over three years.

The new plan will emphasize private sector initiatives to address complex food security challenges. Indeed, the private sector, especially smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises, can and must play a central role in the development process as an engine of sustainable job creation and broad-based economic growth. Oxfam, for example, engages in these kinds of initiatives -- most notably with SwissRe, the Relief Society of Tigray, and others to integrate a risk management "insurance-for-work" program into the Ethiopian government's pre-existing safety net program, a suggestion that came from farmers.

But there is a temptation -- especially during a period of constrained public budgets -- to make convenient assumptions about the private sector as a development panacea. Yet there's is a worrying lack of evidence to support using official development assistance to leverage private finance to fight poverty. A recent report by the World Bank's Independent Evaluation Group pointed out that less than half of the International Finance Corporation's projects actually reached the poor. It is unclear how these private financial institutions or intermediaries are chosen and how the public can effectively track and evaluate the social impact of these interventions. Moreover, the private sector is unlikely to invest in many essential public goods that do not provide short-term returns on investment.

At Camp David, the leaders of the eight richest countries should forge ahead on a more promising path. This will require specific, measureable funding and policy commitments. If they live up to their end of the bargain and support the shovel-ready plans put forward by developing countries, they can help 50 million people lift themselves out of poverty through sustainable smallholder agriculture, and help 15 million children get the nutrients they need to avoid stunting -- but only if they are willing to take urgent action to tackle the problem.

To achieve this, a genuine partnership between the G-8 and poor countries is needed, recommitting to the promise made in L'Aquila. The G-8 leaders themselves need to take responsibility for fulfilling their commitments -- they can't pawn it off on others or private enterprise. In the end, just like in L'Aquila, what is needed at Camp David is leadership. In a room filled with the heads of state of the world's wealthiest countries, I'd sure hope there would be some of that on offer.

Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America


Meet the GUTS

The West isn't declining. Here are four world powers enjoying an astonishing renaissance.

Friday's G-8 summit at Camp David may seem something of an oddity -- an archaic reminder of a time before the rise of the BRICs and the supposed decline of the Western powers. But the West is still very much alive and kicking -- and, driven by its most dynamic members, has a chance of remaining on the top of the heap for the foreseeable future.

The West is not in decline, at least not in its entirety. Rather, the financial crisis has created a two-speed West. Four large countries -- Germany, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States -- are actually increasing their international influence, while the others are stuck in a rut.

Ironically, America's obituary as a great power has repeatedly been written over the past three years even as it has grown stronger on multiple fronts. U.S. influence in Asia has risen at a rapid clip since 2008, driven largely by regional anxiety about Chinese assertiveness. The United States deepened its traditional alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea. It developed strategic partnerships, including with the Philippines, Vietnam, and others in ways that were previously unthinkable. Paradoxically, Chinese economic growth has weakened its own geopolitical position and benefited the United States. Such are the ways of world politics.

The United States is rising in other areas too. On national security, the U.S. position is also stronger than it has been in many years. The U.S. military and intelligence services have shown impressive dynamism in bringing al Qaeda to the brink of total defeat, something many analysts believed unlikely only a few years ago. The Pentagon has been at the forefront of the drone and robotics revolution, which may give it an edge in 21st-century conflicts. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats have developed innovative new means of international cooperation, notably with the Nuclear Security Summit and the Open Government Partnership.

America's greatest vulnerability remains its weak economy. Significant challenges lie ahead, but it is worth noting that the United States has significantly outperformed the eurozone and has better prospects for growth than most other Western states. It remains a hub of innovation: Just consider the rise of social media and the technology-driven exploration for shale gas. Over the long term, the fiscal challenges confronting the United States must be weighed against the very real -- and very underestimated -- internal strains on the Chinese and Indian economies.

It's not just the United States that is propping up the West. Germany stands apart as a rising power amidst a weakened Europe. Its unemployment rate is at a post-Cold War low and its timely market reforms have allowed it to export its way out of the recession. The euro crisis is Germany's greatest challenge but, ironically, it has also made Germany the continent's preeminent diplomatic and geoeconomic power: For better or worse, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has won argument after argument about the future direction of the EU, often despite deep reservations from other member states. Francois Hollande's election in France will complicate but not erode Merkel's position. And even if she loses power next year -- an unlikely prospect despite her recent setbacks in regional elections -- a different German leader will continue to profit from Germany's economic strength within Europe.

In East Asia, South Korea's strong economic performance since the financial crisis led some analysts to argue it should be added to the BRICs, but as one of America's oldest and most reliable allies, it belongs in the West's column. It has become a powerhouse of high-end manufacturing and is on course to become richer than Japan in per capita terms within the next five years. Internationally, South Korea responded robustly and responsibly to North Korea's aggression by strengthening the alliance with the United States and embarking upon controversial defense cooperation with its old enemy, Japan. It has also taken an active role in upholding the international order, hosting the G-20 summit in 2010 and the nuclear security summit in March.

Turkey, a longstanding U.S. ally and NATO member, is the fourth member of the rising West. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has transformed Turkey into a regional powerhouse -- its economy has more than tripled under his watch, registering growth rates on par with China. After years of eschewing its Muslim identity, Turkey is emerging as a model, albeit an imperfect one, for Islamic democrats in the Arab world. Turkish assistance is indispensable in dealing with the Syrian crisis, and its diplomats play a pivotal role in mediating international negotiations with Iran. Yes, the new Turkey has a tendency to chart its own path -- but even if Erdogan is often at odds with other NATO members, Turkey represents a bridge from the West rather than an island apart from it.

But even as these four countries have expanded their influence, the West is also hobbled by four countries that have yet to recover from the financial crisis: Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. All suffer from lower growth rates than the rising West and, unlike the United States, they have not compensated for economic weakness with bold advances in other areas. Britain and France tried to take the initiative with the Libya intervention, but the war merely illustrated their yawning technological shortcomings, and showed how heavily NATO allies rely on U.S. airpower.

Britain has the best chance to join the rising West if it can turn its economy around. Its leadership of the G-8 next year offers an opportunity to demonstrate some of its old flair for global leadership, especially if it takes creative steps to reach out to dynamic new players like Turkey and Indonesia. Another state, Australia, is between the two Wests -- it avoided a recession after the fall of Lehman Brothers but has not had the impact of a rising power in recent years. However, its geographical position, close security relationship with the United States, and vast energy supplies means it is likely to become more influential in global politics.

The rising West is a force to be reckoned with. It is no coincidence that U.S. President Barack Obama has been closer to the leaders of his fellow rising Western states than to the leaders of the rest; he named South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Erdogan as two of his closest international allies. (He appears not to be as close personally to Merkel but Germany's centrality in the euro crisis means he is in constant contact with her.)

So don't write off the West yet. The rising powers in the developed world will not always agree, but when they do they will be hard to resist. And they will be important interlocutors for the BRICS as they engage the Western order. Unfortunately, Friday's G-8 summit is unlikely to harness their power -- Turkey and South Korea's leaders are at home.

Perhaps these rising powers need an acronym if they are to be taken seriously. Is it time for the BRICS to meet the GUTS of the West?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images