The reports we see every night about the G8 summit in Hokkaido, Japan, could not be more aggravating. As the planet heats up and everybody from the middle class down feels the pain of rising food, oil and commodity prices, the leaders of the world’s richest countries are carousing with each other and feasting on meals that select Japanese chefs have reportedly been practicing for six months.
One such meal probably contains more calories than a poor child in Africa will absorb in a week. And yet, those leaders have the gall to pretend to be seeking solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. While we swallow advice on how to reduce gas consumption, cut down on meals, remove ties in the office and forsake the car for the city bus or the bicycle, G8 leaders and their spouses are flown from all over the world for meetings that appear more hedonistic than constructive, and from whose outcome we can expect very little results.
In his book The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly, an economist at the World Bank for 16 years before he was kicked out over the publication of his first book, shows us why the West’s “Big Plans” — everything you will be hearing and reading about coming out of Hokkaido this week — have been failing.
Easterly writes why despite US$2.3 trillion in foreign aid in the past five decades, global poverty has yet to be alleviated and millions continue to die from preventable diseases, or why calls for ending poverty made 50 years ago are the same calls we heard 20 years ago — and again at the UN Millennium Project in 2000 — and today.
The gist of Easterly’s argument — which applies not only to development aid, but also to other challenges such as global warming — is that the “Planners,” his term for the big Western agencies (UN, IMF, World Bank, G8 and so on) have no accountability and are so remote from the work done on the ground that their Big Projects have failed and will continue to fail. It is not sufficient to attend a summit and claim that donor countries ought to double or treble the aid they give to Africa.
Throwing money at the problem will not work, is wasteful and aside from providing good sound bites (remember the good publicity that accompanied US President George W. Bush’s announcement that he was increasing aid to Africa, just as he was planning an illegal war against a sovereign country), accomplishes very little, if anything at all. World leaders will continue to fail in their mandate if they continue to see problems as general issues, such as “poverty,” “global warming” and “pollution.”
What is needed — and what they have utterly failed at, given their distance from reality — is a close-up look and sets of mechanisms that are adapted to specific environments. In other words, addressing “poverty” in Bangladesh may not necessarily require the same type of intervention that would work in, say, Ethiopia.
Cynics are right to criticize the G8 summits, past and present, but as long as populations care more about what Bush calls Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or whether the latter is truly Bush’s lapdog, than calling those leaders to account and pressuring them to lower themselves back to our level, things will not change. There used to be a time when it was “us” and “the rest” — the West and the “Third World” — which, though a blatantly unfair situation, did not make us in the West overly uncomfortable.
After all, despite the injustice, the problems our leaders failed to resolve did not threaten to affect our lives. Aside from eliciting pangs of guilt as we saw Africans dying by the thousands on our TV screens, most of us did not connect as the crisis was out there, easily forgotten once we switched channels.
But this is changing. Nowadays, only the wealthiest do not feel the pain. In due time and as global warming and pollution continue to intensify, no one — not even the ultra-rich —will be spared. Is that the point we want to reach before we tell our leaders that the distance they have created between themselves and the rest of us is unacceptable?
Are we so selfish and hypnotized by our own comforts that the world needs to go up in flames, sparing no one, before we use our rights as citizens to tell our leaders to act, to cease dining like gastronomes and really do something about the scythes that are gathering above our heads?
Or have we just all given up, let down by the repeated failures of the Kyoto Protocol and the many commitments made and invariably missed by the world leaders while they continue to enrich the rich, plunder the Earth and destroy the environment?
If they really cared, the G8 leaders and their spouses would ask for a bowl of rice for their last meal. Not caviar and shark fin.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei and the author of Smokescreen: Canadian Security Intelligence after September 11, 2001.
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