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.