Politics of Poverty

Global summitry—and mountains still to climb

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While there wasn’t anywhere near enough political will at Camp David, Los Cabos, or Rio, the growing insistence of civil society, north and south, especially young people, was undeniable.

Judy Beals is the Campaigns Director at Oxfam America.

In the past six weeks, world leaders met not once, not twice, but three times to discuss and deliver global solutions to global challenges. The G8, the G20 and Rio+20 received scant media attention during this election year dominated by domestic issues. And while global summits generally deliver more snooze than sizzle, they continue to matter, bringing together heads of state to discuss and, at least potentially, to bring global attention, resources and commitment to the world’s poorest.

With nearly a billion people hungry (including 18 million people in West Africa facing a massive unfolding food crisis), increasingly erratic weather, and a weak global economy, the need for shared solutions to shared problems could not be greater. But world leaders failed to rise to the challenge.

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As host to the G8—or Group of 8—the US was perhaps best positioned to deliver substantial commitments, especially since President Obama had put global food security squarely on the agenda. But meeting in the secluded Camp David, Maryland, the world’s largest industrialized economies passed the buck. Instead, the G8 tried to fill the gap of their broken promises with a private sector initiative that simply cannot tackle the complex challenges of food insecurity. Only the US recommitted itself to an important initiative started three years ago at the G8 Summit in L’Aquila. On the bright side, some commitments were made to replenish the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), a multi-donor plan that invests in developing country agriculture.

The G20—the group of the world’s 20 major economies—arguably delivered even less. Still relatively new, the G20 has been meeting at the head of state level since 2008 to discuss key issues in the global economy and to promote “strong, sustainable and balanced growth.” Despite opportunities this year to address drivers of food crises—including commodity price volatility and increased demand for biofuels—G20 leaders assembled in Los Cabos, Mexico were unable to move beyond internal disagreement over how to fix the Eurozone. The one bright spot was movement plugging the leak on hundreds of millions of dollars that drain out of poor countries into tax havens every year.

Coming 20 years after the first Earth Summit, Rio+20s ambitions were high to tackle ending poverty and achieving prosperity for all while living within the earth’s limits of fresh water, clean air, and fertile land. While the verdict on action by heads of state at Rio is rightly dismalthere too, at least if you looked hard enough, were glimmers of hope. UN General Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge was a welcome ray of hope. Even business leaders produced at least a few positive initiatives at the Corporate Sustainability Forum and the Business Action for Sustainable Development.

Overall, shockingly inadequate outcomes, given the scale and urgency of the challenges? Yes. But I bring a different view. We know that solutions DO existto bring about a small-scale agricultural revolution that can feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit this earth by 2050 without destroying the planet; to bring about a green energy revolution; to bring about a more just and sustainable global economy that benefits all of us.

What we face is something we CAN change: political will. And while there wasn’t anywhere near enough of it at Camp David, Los Cabos, or Rio, the growing insistence of civil society, north and south, especially young people, was undeniable.

Our supporters were there. People signed the G8 petition we delivered to President Obama, urging him to launch an ambitious food security partnership with small-scale farmers. Nearly half a million supporters tuned in for our G8 Twitter Town Hall, #G8chat . Before the G20 summit Oxfam supporters helped spread the word about what was at stake.Throughout the summits, our Twitter followers tweeted and retweeted via #DearG8, #TweetG20, and #Rioplus20 about progress (or lack thereof) that leaders were making on our key issues.

Our supporters became part of something that is gaining steam—a new awakening to citizen power—standing up, speaking loudly and clearly for our future. Social media is part of it, but members of our Oxfamily went further—holding events, signing petitions, making phone calls, speaking directly with elected officials, and insisting that their voices be heard.

And that’s exactly what we need to keep doing—building political will—holding leaders accountable and making sure the glitz of summits is matched by real commitments for poor people. GROWing a movement in the present, for now and for the future, like no other the world has ever seen. You can help us do that—by asking your friends, families and social networks to join our GROW campaign—by continuing to stand up, take action, and make your voices heard.

So here’s to summits attempted and at least partially scaled. We have mountains still to climb. Looking forward to our journey together.

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