Promises, promises …
More efforts are needed to hold the leaders of the G8 nations to commitments made at their annual summit meetings.
Do the annual G8 meetings of the leaders of the world's largest industrialised nations serve a useful purpose? The question has been raised yet again by the mixed outcome of this year's meeting, which took place earlier this week in the Japanese resort of Hokkaido.
Perhaps inevitably, supporters of and participants in such meetings tend to emphasise their more positive results. This year was no exception, with Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda at the meeting's conclusion praising the apparent consensus that had been reached on topics from climate change to Zimbabwe.
Equally inevitably, those hoping for radical outcomes tend to be frustrated when these are not achieved, or when fine words are not put into practice. Development groups point out bitterly, for example, that the G8 countries are nowhere near achieving the doubling of aid to Africa by 2010 that was promised at the Gleneagles summit three years ago.
Dismissing such meetings as an "exercise in escapism" — as UK-based nongovernmental organisation ActionAid has done — may be going too far. The role of the G8 in encouraging greater policy convergence among the world's most powerful nations should not be underestimated.
Nevertheless, more effective mechanisms need to be developed to ensure that the commitments made are adequate, and that those who put their name to them adhere to them rigorously. Without such mechanisms, the whole G8 process is likely to lose public legitimacy, and thus public support.
Concrete climate goal
Take, for example, climate change, an issue that was high on the agenda in Hokkaido. One of the most significant outcomes from the summit was a joint commitment to reduce global carbon emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2050 (see G8 leaders pledge to halve carbon emissions by 2050).
The impact of this decision should not be underestimated. International agreement on a single figure for carbon reductions provides a clear framework for discussions on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. And the fact that even US president George Bush has agreed, for the first time, to a concrete goal is itself significant.
But many climate researchers say that this commitment does not go nearly far enough, and sidesteps the critical need for interim targets as well.
Furthermore, little progress seems to have been made in raising the incentives needed — such as subsidised access to non-nuclear, low-carbon technologies — to bring countries such as Brazil and China into any post-Kyoto agreement. Yet without such incentives, international efforts to curb global warming in an equitable manner will inevitably fail.
Capacity building neglected
Take the need to build research capacity in developing countries in general, and Africa in particular, as an essential step towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (see Can Japan take the 'science for development' baton?).
To Japan's credit, this issue was flagged up during the preparations for the Hokkaido summit. Indeed, it was one of three topics discussed at the first ever formal meeting of G8 science ministers, held in Okinawa last month. This produced a statement acknowledging that collaborative efforts between developed and developing countries were "critical" to addressing global issues effectively.
Echoes of this statement can be found in the text on Africa's development needs issued at the end of the Hokkaido summit, in which the participants emphasised "the importance of education, science and technology as a means to facilitate development".  Similar sentiments were expressed in Section 7 of their statement on Global Food Security. 
But there was little indication of a joint commitment to increase funding for efforts in these areas. Nor was there any acknowledgement of the slow progress in providing support for networks of excellence involving universities and science and technology institutions that was promised in Gleneagles three years ago.
Rich man's club
The reasons for the shortcomings are not difficult to understand. Most politicians — including government leaders — work on relatively short-term timescales. As a result, a quick headline can often generate considerably more political capital than the long-term investment required to achieve more ambitious goals.
Perhaps more importantly, the G8 remains primarily a rich man's club, seeking to promote strategies that reflect its own global goals and priorities. By definition, this top-down perspective does not sit easily with the idea that successful development needs to be a bottom-up affair.
Take, for example, the question of intellectual property (IP). Discussion on this issue within the G8 frameworks remains focused on issues such as tightening IP rules, and combating counterfeiting. There was no discussion of the need, which is steadily gaining recognition, to take into account the specific interests of developing countries' economies in the international debate over intellectual property rights.
The strength of the G8 process is its ability to ensure an open dialogue between the rich countries. In principle at least, this allows important items — such as development spending — to be placed on the international political agenda, legitimising the activities of those seeking to address such issues in a practical way.
The weakness of this process, however, is that it inevitably ends up offering more than it can deliver. Top-down politics is no substitute for grassroots activity, which is required for selecting promising technologies to meet development targets, and building the infrastructure needed to develop such technologies and put them into practice.
Fewer promises, and closer monitoring of the extent to which previous commitments have genuinely supported change on the ground, would be welcome.
 G8 Summit Hokkaido, Paragraph 41, Development and Africa. Available at http://www.g8summit.go.jp/eng/doc/doc080709_03_en.html (2008)
 G8 Summit Hokkaido, Section 7, Global Food Security. Available at http://www.g8summit.go.jp/eng/doc/doc080709_04_en.html (2008)