Is inviting Africans to G8 meeting ‘window-dressing’?

Questions are being asked about whether the Group of Eight invitation to seven African states to attend its summit in Ontario, Canada, reflects its concern about the litany of unmet promises dating from its 2005 Gleneagles meeting — or whether it merely amounts to another bout of window-dressing.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper invited seven African countries — South Africa, Malawi, Ethiopia, Senegal, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt — to attend this year’s G8 summit on June 25-26.

Dr Francis Ikome, director of the African and Southern African programme at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), is sceptical about Africa being represented at the G8. “Since Nepad’s launch it has become a trend among the industrialised countries to invite African countries to summits like those of the G8.

“Many promises are usually made but the real delivery always falls far short of the promises. The important question here is if these countries will be able to make submissions. This is a meeting of industrialised, Western countries. I believe African countries have been invited for window-dressing purposes.”

The meeting includes an “outreach session” in which the seven African invitees will participate alongside Jamaica, Haiti and Columbia, three countries invited on the basis of Canada’s foreign policy objectives in the Americas.

Ikome cautions that: “African leaders make themselves objects of ridicule if they just engage in conversations on the sidelines of these kinds of meetings. A leader should not fly all the way to Canada just to speak in the corridors.” IGD is an international relations research institution based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

But Trudi Hartzenberg, executive director of the Trade Law Centre (Tralac) for Southern Africa, thinks that meetings on the sidelines can be beneficial to African countries. “One should not forget that important bilateral discussions often take place outside the formal meetings. It is during more informal gatherings that important deals can be struck and issues raised that can be taken forward.”

Tralac, based near Cape Town, is a not-for-profit organisation building trade-law capacity in Southern Africa.

Dr Mzukisi Qobo, programme head for emerging powers and global leadership challenges at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), adopted a milder position: “Canada is concerned that the momentum around African issues that was launched at the Gleneagles summit in Scotland in 2005 is waning.

“At Gleneagles $25-billion was pledged to Africa, of which only about $13-billion has materialised,” he added. SAIIA is a non-governmental research institution in Johannesburg.

Other promises at Gleneagles, which was attended by the leaders of Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, included more support to Africa’s peacekeeping forces; and increased investment in education and combating HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis.

There was also the vague suggestion to “one day”” end the rich Western world’s protectionist trade practices; and debt cancellation worth $40-billion was pledged to the poorest countries, including those in Africa. The G8’s European members also committed themselves to a foreign aid target of 0,56% of gross domestic product by 2010 and 0,7% by 2015.

“The seven African invitees have been chosen with great care because they all play important roles in Africa currently,” argued Qobo.

Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia, has for some time been the darling of the Western world, notwithstanding human rights “challenges” in his country, according to Qobo. Ethiopia is regarded as one of the US’s strongest allies in Africa, a relationship that is pursued due to its geographic proximity to the Middle East.

Algeria and Senegal are influential francophone countries while Nigeria and Egypt are significant regional powers in West and North Africa, respectively.

South Africa is regarded as the economic and political powerhouse of Africa and the driver of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

Malawi, the smallest and poorest of the seven, is currently chairing the African Union.

Qobo continued: “There is an ongoing process in the Canadian foreign ministry to develop and maintain a strategy on Africa. There is concern about the Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) engaging African countries. Africa has consolidated important relations with these countries and this bond is seen as a threat to Western countries.

“Canada wants to understand how it can meaningfully engage with Africa regarding issues around security, aid, trade and investment.”

Hartzenberg regards the fact that the invitation has been extended to such a diverse number of African countries as significant. “It often happens that South Africa is seen as the ‘spokescountry’ for the rest of Africa. But Africa is a diverse continent.

“Many of the smaller countries seldom get a chance to be highlighted on an international stage. The needs of a small country like Malawi are vastly different to that of Egypt, for example, and it has to put its own case forward.”

Hartzenberg argues that Western countries — for the most part — had forsaken the pledges made at Gleneagles used the global recession as an easy excuse not to fulfil promises.

Ikome’s final criticism is that the G8 is losing its significance on the global stage: “It is being replaced by the Group of 20 (G20). It would be far better for African countries to be represented at G20 summits.” – IPS

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