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Watchdog at the G8

July 18, 2006 By Declan Butler This article courtesy of Nature News.

Declan Butler talks to John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, Canada, about this year's 'Group of 8' meeting in Russia. Here, heads of industrialized nations have met to discuss some of the world's greatest problems.

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What is it like attending the G8 in St Petersburg?

There are thousands of people here. You have the G8 leaders and the delegations of these and other governments, the international organizations, and around 2,500 members of the media. Add in the security forces and the logistics, and it's like a little city within a city.

At any second, history can be made. Outside their formal meetings there are informal bilateral ones, and chance encounters in the gym.

What's your role?

Our centre's goal is to be the world's leading scholarly independent source of information and analysis on the G8. We want both global governance and the G8 to be more transparent, more open. It doesn't even have a secretariat, so it is one of the least transparent international organizations around. We try to perform that watchdog function.

All the meetings are closed, but the national delegations give regular briefings. The host, president Putin, himself gave a briefing every night; that's very unusual. Veteran G8 watchers have the mobile-phone numbers of whoever is travelling with the heads of state. Their calls get answered, but sure, they are being spun. In an attempt to crack that system, we've brought a large group here to work the room and try to find out what's really going on.

One focus this year was infectious diseases. Did you hear anything new in this direction?

Putin said Russia would give back all the money it has received from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Okay, that's just US$270 million. But it signals Russia's shift from being a consumer of health aid to a producer, and that it trusts the Global Fund.

Putin has realized that Russia is facing a very serious AIDS pandemic that could further shrink its already declining population, and cripple its emerging economy. Putin's conception of AIDS was a bit dated though. He thought the main source of infection was contaminated needles; this is a bigger problem in Russia than other countries, which might explain that focus. But he seemed open to a broad agenda on AIDS, including the problem of heterosexual transmission.

Another declared focus was energy. What was the most promising thing you heard about that?

We have come a long way from Russia's initial proposals for summit discussions last year, where there was no mention of the role of the market in energy security. Now a celebration of the market economy and democratic values pervade the final communiqu.

There's also a strong emphasis on renewables and energy efficiency, and that's coming from a Russia that for a century has relied on extensive, rapacious exploitation of hydrocarbons. This take is brand new for Russia. It will feed into the G8 summit in Germany next year where it will be a central theme.

The summit also gave a big yes to nuclear power, and said that government has a role in supporting nuclear safety and next-generation technology.

How hard is it to tell whether the G8 leaders are really devoting resources to the promises made at these meetings?

When they list what they are each spending on this or that, we get these maddening annexes where you can't tell what is old and new money; it's general to the point of being meaningless. You are tempted to throw your hands up in the air in exasperation and conclude "you are trying to trick us".

But compliance has generally been rising over the years. Last year's Gleneagles summit in Scotland had the second-highest compliance rate of a G8 summit [according to figures at].

If one of this year's promises could be guaranteed to be met, which would you choose?

It would have to be a pledge to educate young girls. The G8, since it was founded, has had a terrible record with gender issues. If there is a silver bullet for development, and even against AIDS, we know it is educating girls. But it has rarely been highlighted by the G8. This summit did a little better than one might have feared, and let's hope that this gets built upon by Angela Merkel, the woman hosting next year's summit.

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