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Last week's meeting of leaders of the world's top industrialised nations produced some welcome words about the critical importance of helping the developing world, but relatively little action to back them up.

Many fine words were spoken at last week’s meeting of the heads of the world’s eight leading industrialised countries (known as the G8) in Evian, France, about the need to address the problems of developing countries. As last year, for example, there was a general agreement that much more needs to be done in channelling aid to such countries, particular in Africa, which French President Jacques Chirac described shortly before the meeting as the “neglected continent”.

The United States was able to occupy some of the moral high ground by coming to the conference having recently passed legislation in Congress that offers an extra $15 billion over five years to the fight against AIDS, and urging other industrialised nations to follow its example (US money will only be forthcoming if the others pledge twice its contribution). And there was even a noble-sounding ‘plan of action’ for promoting science and technology in the service of sustainable document, a document that had been promised by Chirac last year at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (see G8 leaders endorse science and technology action plan).

Judged objectively, however, the meeting is widely seen as, at best, only a modest success on development issues. The fact that the agenda was dominated by the political aftermath of the Iraq war, and in particular by efforts to bridge the divide between supporters and opponents of the war, meant that – unlike last year’s meeting at Kananaskis in Canada – development issues were for the most part relegated to the sidelines of this year’s G8 summit. Certainly the financial commitments made in this area were very much less then the $27 billion in new funding pledged last year.

Furthermore – and similarly with roots in global politics – the positive steps taken in Evian tended to be overshadowed by the issues that were left untouched. Chirac’s determination to place development issues on the agenda, for example by organising a ‘development summit’ of the leaders of 12 developing nations, appeared to conflict with his refusal to address the issue of agricultural subsidies which European governments pay to their farmers, essentially excluding poor countries from selling many of their crops in such markets.

Aid as a technical fix

In a similar way, US generosity on the AIDS front, which includes a substantial contribution to the new Global Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, is being seen by some critics as a way of deflecting political attention from a deeper issue with potentially a much more broad-ranging impact. This is the need for fundamental changes in the world’s intellectual property order that, in principle, would allow developing countries to significantly reduce their reliance on the products of pharmaceutical companies based in the industrialised North.

The danger in both cases is that development aid continues to be seen as a form of technical fix. In Chirac’s plan of action for science and technology, for example, there is considerable discussion of the ways in which technologies developed in the industrialised world – from global monitoring satellites to nuclear power stations – can help developing countries pave the way towards their sustainable development. But there is little more than a passing reference to the idea that these countries have to build up their educational and research infrastructures in a way that will allow them to tackle their own problems in the future.

What was missing from the joint statements issued at the end of the summit was any solid commitment to major steps that will allow the countries of the developing world to determine their own social and economic fate. The logjam over agricultural subsidies, for example, has become a major blockage in the latest round of talks on world trade that started in Doha last year. In principle, these talks offer much to the developing world (for example, on the possibility of revising the terms of international agreements on intellectual property rights); in practice, their successful conclusion remains as remote as ever.  

Capacity building holds the key

Of course, technical fixes themselves are not to be scorned. The new US commitments on AIDS have placed the development community in something of a dilemma. Even the sharpest critics of US aid policy have been forced to admit, often reluctantly, that the new money will make a significant difference in the global fight against AIDS (and other infectious diseases). Particularly since the White House has been prepared to stand up to its domestic conservative critics and refuse to accept stringent conditions that some have been demanding – such as the requirement that no money should go to organisations that endorse abortion.

Yet it remains true that, without sufficient emphasis on capacity building, developing countries will be severely limited in their ability to make effective use of the aid that is on offer. South African president Thabo Mbeki was frank about this in his response to the support given at Evian for a number of projects being proposed under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – a scheme that he was been pioneering with a clutch of other African leaders. “We have bitten off as much as we can chew,” he is reported to have told the press in Pretoria after the meeting.

Some of this capacity building relates directly to the need to learn good governance practices; indeed Mbeki’s comments could be viewed partly as a reflection of the insistence of donors to NEPAD – having seen so much aid money wasted over the years – that better governance is a condition of their support. But the requirement for building capacity extends through all professional sectors of society, including science, technology, and (as has been frequently expressed by SciDev.Net) their effective communication. The more that future G8 summits can focus on this dimension of development aid, the more effective their overall efforts to increase global security are likely to be.

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