What Will History Say About The G20 In Cannes?

Sue Pleming

CANNES, France – Giant billboards pasted all over Cannes this week declare "history is being written" at G20 meetings held here on Thursday and Friday. Walking along the Boulevard de la Croisette to the impressive Palais des Festivals complex where the summit is being held, I wondered (cynically I admit) who history will say benefit most from these meetings on the Riviera Coast. Will it be the clientele and owners of the high-end boutiques that line the star-studded boulevard – Gucci, Chanel or Dior? Or will the G20 take the lead and be rememberd for how it tackled not only the economic mess but also the current food crisis, innovative financing mechanisms to pay for development, and eradicating tax havens? How can NGOs like InterAction and our members get development challenges included on the agenda in a town known for its annual film festival and Palme D’Or awards?

The eurozone trauma is expected to dominate news coverage at the summit, which follows on from a series of crisis meetings that resulted in a deal in Brussels last week to reduce Greece’s debt and hopefully ward off further contagion in Europe.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the host of this year's G20, was obviously relieved a deal was struck before HIS G20, which conveniently comes a few months before the French elections. But Europe’s debt doldrums are far from over.  From an NGO perspective, there are fears that fallout from the sovereign debt crisis will be felt also by developing countries as banks slash credit lines to struggling nations and resulting budget cuts lead to a decline in aid. Slow economic growth will also reduce demand for commodities, manufactured goods and services.

The eurozone crunch also comes as food prices hit their highest levels in decades. Underscoring the severity of this crisis, the first famine of the 21st century is unfolding in the Horn of Africa, where more than 750,000 are at risk of starvation.  Drought is cyclical – inevitable – but famine can be prevented. If it couldn’t, then drought-ravaged Texas would be experiencing a similar tragedy as the Horn of Africa is today. It's not.

So how could these G20 leaders gathered on the Cote D'Azur prevent the famines of the future? They could focus on sustainable farming solutions that also address poor child and maternal nutrition. They also must take the lead in meeting previous commitments on agriculture, with a particular focus on women farmers, who form the backbone of many societies. G20 nations should, for example, help deliver on pledges made in L’Aquila, Italy, back in 2009 when $22 billion was committed to invest in agriculture and food security.  Money spent now is a down payment to prevent the huge costs later both in human and monetary terms.

With so little cash lying around, there is new impetus to find innovative ways to fund development, and philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates will be examining that on Thursday when he delivers a paper on innovative financing to G20 leaders in Cannes. Gates is expected to argue forcefully that leadership from the G20 is critically important during these dire economic times if we are to build on improvements in health, mortality and poverty reduction over the past decade or so.

There are many options on the table, from taxes on shipping and airline fuel – the “Bunker Tax” – to a financial transaction tax on futures, bonds and options, equities and commodities. Estimates vary over how much would be raised by this financial fee, but it could be hundreds of billions of dollars. Of course if these fees were imposed – and this seems highly unlikely in the United States – there need to be guarantees that they will go to development, health, education and dealing with climate change.

In the meantime, donor countries must continue to provide financing for development while ensuring that money is used effectively and programs are inclusive. In other words, they must have an impact on those who really need it.

Being inclusive means ensuring that the poorest countries and their people are not excluded when these economic bailout plans finally bear fruit. Resolving the eurozone crisis should not be an excuse for Europe and others to turn their backs on the poor. Deeper cuts in humanitarian relief, agriculture, food, health and other programs will cost more later both in terms of stability and economic growth.

So when these G20 leaders write history this week, let’s hope their decisions help bring more people out of poverty rather than the opposite. That’s one for the history books.

Watch out for more blogs this week on the G20 in Cannes where InterAction staff are seeking to get core issues on the agenda and in the media.