Is the G8's accountability push for real? An interview

Accountability is emerging as perhaps the key theme of the G8 summit held at a lakeside resort in Huntsville, Ont. Skepticism isn’t the wrong reaction. The G8’s track record is uneven at best when it comes to issuing clear updates on whether its members make good on past pledges.

But there are tentative signs of a new standard taking hold. An report released by the G8 a few days ago, to set the stage for today’s confab, revealed a $10-billion shortfall in progress toward the $50 billion increase in aid to Africa promised at the 2005 Gleneagles Summit.

Jenilee Guebert, director of research for the G8 Research Group at Univeristy of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, is an expert on the accountability file. She spoke to me (sitting in one of the Muskoka chairs beside the fake lake—no kidding) inside the media centre for this weekend’s G8 and G20 summits. Our conversation, edited:

Q. Why is accountability so prominent at this year’s summit?

A. The focus on accountability really started in 2008 at the Hokkaido Summit in Japan. There the leaders agreed they needed more emphasis on keeping the commitments they made. It was a push by Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Q. But the G8 issued updates in the past on how they’ve followed up on previous commitments. What was wrong with them?

A. These past reports were criticized for being heavy on the governments just stating what they had done, not really outlining the commitments they were talking about. Most civil society organizations following this said this was not really useful.

Q. So they’ll now be measuring what they do against what they promised?

A. What we ended up with this year was an accountability report that was focused on 56 commitments, on development and development-related commitments. Fourteen are on health, but there’s also climate change, peace and security, food security, water and sanitation, etc.

Q. To take a high-profile example, how are they doing on the African aid commitments they made at Gleneagles?

A. Certain countries have met their commitments in full—Canada, the United States. Other countries have fallen short—Germany, Italy, a few others. Now, most of those countries will say it was because of the economic and financial crisis and resources got diverted.

Q. Whatever the reason, just being able to see clearly where they failed to come through is an improvement, right?

A. From our point of view, this is a great exercise. It’s making the countries more aware of keeping their commitments.

Q. Are you able to hear nuances in the G8 discussion that reflect a new discipline?

A. There are things we’re picking up on now. For example, the Canadian government has been vocal on new funding. Lots of civil society organizations have in the past said that G8 commitments are drawing on pledges that have already been made. I can see this year’s communiqué being about new funding to be clearer.

Q. How will we know that the numbers in the new accountability reports are real? There’s no official auditing function in the G8 process.

A. Third parties need to ensure the government reports are valid and transparent and measuring the right things. This is one of the exercises that our group hopes to take up, actually looking at the accountability report, double check the numbers, and go through it point by point.