United Kingdom to Stress Transparency on G-8 Agenda

14 January 2013

By Toby McIntosh

Transparency has been designated as a special theme of this year’s G-8 meeting by the host country, the United Kingdom, making civil society organizations hopeful of better transparency for the operations of the G-8 itself.

The eight largest developed nations have made uneven progress toward more transparency in recent years, according to critical CSOs. They say more opportunities for participation should be provided and more G-8 documents should be released.

Among other things, the names, members and missions of the G-8 working groups, which develop the recommendations advance of the annual summits, should be disclosed. The quality and timing of consultations with outside groups is inadequate, the critics say.

A communiqué describing the new conclusions by the heads of state is issued at the close of the meeting.  However, the key “accountability report,” describing the G-8’s progress toward meeting its goals, gets issued only after the meeting, sometimes days later, critics complain, asking for pre-meeting disclosure.

The G-8 process, therefore, remains too opaque, the CSOs state, providing insufficient openings for the public to understand and influence the outcome.

UK Makes Transparency an Emphasis

The United Kingdom’s choice of transparency as a theme for the upcoming summit is raising hopes.

The selection of that topic dovetails with the UK’s current position of leadership in the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral effort in which 58 member governments make specific commitments to improve their openness. 

Whether the UK’s focus of transparency will extend to its management of the G-8 meetings remains to be seen. Details are sketchy so far, the UK having just officially assumed the G-8 chairmanship on Jan. 1. A British Cabinet office official said it was too early to discuss meeting planning.

Nevertheless, “the signs are reasonably good in terms of transparency,” according to Joanna Rea, Policy and Government Relations Manager with BOND, a British CSO, and a long-time advocate for more openness.

Perennial Transparency Proposals

Recommendations on G-8 transparency have been staples of criticism for years, buried among many other policy proposals.

The U.S. G8/G20 Advocacy Alliance, made up of more than 40 NGOs, think tanks, and trade unions in December issued recommendations in four core areas expected to be on the agenda: accountability; anti-corruption and transparency; food security, nutrition and agriculture; and sexual violence in war. Leaders also were urged to address two other issues: fragile states; and newborn, child and maternal health.

“Unfortunately, a notable lack of transparency threatens to undermine the credibility of the G8’s Accountability Working Group and its commitment compliance review process,” the Alliance wrote. It contended further:

Transparent practices provide assurance that the G8 will continue to act as an honest broker as development cooperation evolves to include new partnerships charged with implementing G8 development priorities and commitments. The need for transparency grows as the G8 continues to turn to non-traditional development actors and relies more frequently on public-private partnerships. Information-sharing and an offer of expanded access to all governments, donors, and practitioners are necessary to encourage other national and international actors to mobilize resources to address critical humanitarian and development needs.

The Alliance said that the G-8 Accountability Working Group (AWG) should “collect input from international organizations, recipient governments and civil societyto inform the preparation of the Accountability Report.

The AWG should publicly identify the G-8 working groups, “releasing their terms of reference, and the names and affiliation of all experts advising the AWG and its working groups as soon as they are selected,” the Alliance said. It also stipulated that meeting schedules for such groups and a detailed agenda should be publicly available at least 20 days before each meeting.

 The AWG report should be issued 30 days before the summit, according to the Alliance.  

 “If you see it beforehand, you have an opportunity to comment on it,” Rea said.

David Hall-Matthews, director of the group Publish What You Fund, commented on Cameron’s announcement by saying: “We are pleased that the UK’s Presidency will keep transparency high on the agenda at the G8 summit of leaders, and hope this leads to some substantive, practical change. The G8 should lead on transparency in their own practices. An Accountability Report should be produced before the summit, to include a record of progress on aid effectiveness commitments, notably the Busan common standard for aid information.”

Rea said groups are not seeking access to the draft reports of the working groups, but noted that in the G-20 context groups have asked for any commissioned research, such as reports done by the World Bank for the G-20. Also requested for both the G-8 and G-20 is the post-meeting release of “input documents,” which has occurred after recent meetings.

Progress Seen in Recent Years

Progress toward more transparency by the G-8 began several years ago, but lagged a bit with the meeting hosted in 2012 by the United States, according to CSO observers.

The Obama administration aimed to make the G-8 more of an “informal” dialogue among leaders, and the UK is expected to follow suit.

Neither the G-8 or the G-20 have permanent secretariats, but each operates with a fairly consistent structure of “working groups.” The lead-up to the summits includes scheduled meetings of designated top officials known as “sherpas” and also of top-level ministers.

G-8 meetings require major pre-planning in order to orchestrate the complicated logistics of the meetings and to negotiate policy positions.

For those on the outside seeking to influence the outcome, the most direct pressure points lie with the national governments.  Lobbying is aimed at the national departments with G-8 responsibilities, usually the foreign policy or the treasury ministry.

Civil society organizations have increasingly sought to compound their influence by preparing  a unified international agenda and seeking opportunities to address the developers of policy for the G-8 and the G-20.

In recent years, the increasingly influential G-20 has drawn more interest from the CSOs and has been under pressure to be transparent, with very similar demands.

So far, Russian management of the G-20  meeting in September has been getting positive reviews, with side comments about the contrast with domestic crackdowns on free expression and the operations of foreign groups within Russia.

Russia has posted online a listing of meetings, including the working group meetings, following a precedent set by Mexico last year. In December, Russia held separate meetings with business and CSO representatives. “There is definitely progress we can point to,” said Rea.

G-8 Curtain-Opening Began in 2009

Observers of the G-8, which began in 1975 as the G-6, say the first major step toward G-8 openness came in 2009 at the summit in Italy.

An annex to the communiqué issued in Italy in 2009 was the first self-evaluation of progress toward meeting the established goals, now known as the “accountability report.” The Accountability Working Group was established formally in 2010. Each year since the report has gotten better, according to John Ruthrauff,  Director of International Advocacy for InterAction in Washington, D.C., and others.

Still, the accountability reports need improvement, several CSO officials, said, particularly to provide more quantification and comparability. “It’s still not as complete a document as we would like it,” Ruthrauff said.

He regretted that the U.S. report was issued a week or two after the meeting. (See the website for the 2012 summit. For other background on the G-8, see a page with links on the Bond website.)

A strengthened accountability process is the best guarantee of good outcomes, commented Robert Lovelace, Senior Fellow at the Trade Union Sustainable Development Unit, a Canadian-based foundation. He wrote a blog post in May 2012 making the case. He wrote:

The G8 Accountability Reports could be strengthened considerably if the Accountability Working Group adopted a consistent approach to tapping outside expertise. Governments already rely on the highly regarded assessments of group’s like ONE, an advocacy organization fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. Why not open up the process?

Civil society would also like to see consultations with officials from G-8 countries well in advance of the meeting. In recent years, the record on this has been spotty, Ruthrauff said, depending on the host. There are no G-8 standards for such consultations.  By contrast, the OGP established specific standards for countries to use on consulting on their national action plans and also committed to its own consultation and information disclosure policies.

In 2012, the U.S. didn’t sponsor any significant content discussions until a month or so before the summit. The timing of consultations is very important, Ruthrauff and others emphasize, said, because “decisions are made long before the summit.”

“So when you meet with people a month before the summit you just are meeting about what they are already going to do,” he said.

The G-8 consultations for NGOs, however, attract attendance, even if they are held late in the process.

Sometimes as many as 100 organizations are represented. This has led groups to hold pre-meetings, to write short working papers, and to designate speakers. The process is rather formal. “We read the questions, the sherpas read the answers,” Ruthrauff noted. He supports having a few short formal sessions followed by an informal reception for more discussion.

Cameron Sets Transparency as Third Goal

British Prime Minister David Cameron signaled his priorities for the G-8 meeting in a Nov. 20 speech in Northern Ireland. He will host the other heads of state on June 17-18 in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland.

The host country handles administration for the rotating meeting, and chairs it. The host also has the traditional prerogative of adding chosen priorities to the agenda for special attention along with the many other legacy topics. The prime minister also announced that the UK will host a Food and Nutrition Summit in the week before the G-8 meeting.

Trade liberalization and tax compliance are Cameron’s first two priorities. “The third thing I want us to look at is an issue about making our world and making businesses in our world and making governments in our world much more transparent, much more open,” he said. (Also see a Reuters report on a letter from Cameron to the G-8 leaders and an OGP blog post with a link to the letter.)

Cameron said further:

There is a high-minded interest because when you look around the world you can see some of the poorest countries that find they have mineral wealth – they have oil or they have coal or they have gas – and it turns out to be a complete curse rather than a blessing because the money from that material wealth is taken from the people, not shared by the government, and a more transparent way of dealing with this can make sure these resources are a blessing for those countries and not a curse.

But there is a slightly less noble motive in all of this which is that in Britain, in the United Kingdom, we have some of the toughest rules about transparency, about openness, about the way we do business, about not bribing, about not being corrupt.  And we have those rules, and actually, frankly, it’s in our interest if those rules are applied all over the world.

Heading the G-8 Transparency Working Group is Michael Anderson, a Director General of the UK, Department for International Development (DFID), FreedomInfo.org was told.

G-8 Movement Toward Larger Transparency Issues

The G-8 has already moved into the international transparency sphere in very recent years.

At the 2012 meeting in the United States, the G-8 leaders pledged to “assist each transition country with progress toward membership in the Open Government Partnership.” The U.S. announced an aid package to support open governance and political participation in the Middle East and North Africa. Other donors promised to fund similar work in Egypt, the U.S. State Department said. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Despite the implicit endorsement of the OGP, three countries are not members – France, Germany and Japan. The G-8 members are France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada; whose economies make up more than 40 percent of the global economy. France sent a representative to a December OGP meeting of all members and prospective members.

The year before, during the 2011 meeting in France, the G-8 formed what is known as the “Deauville Partnership” to help countries in the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Spring. The G-8 endorsed mandatory disclosure of extractive industry payments to governments. The G-8 Deauville Declaration welcomed “complementary efforts to increase revenue transparency, and commit to setting in place transparency laws and regulations or to promoting voluntary standards that require or encourage oil, gas, and mining companies to disclose the payments they make to governments.”

The United Kingdom’s priorities on transparency might be inferred from its plans as the lead co-chair of the OGP and from the UK “action plan” which lays stress on opening up government data. The UK’s four OPG priorities are oriented at selling the message of open government and developing the OGP as an organization. (See related FreedomInfo.org report.) Francis Maude, the UK’s Cabinet Minister, speaking at a September meeting in New York City to commemorate the OGP’s first anniversary, said, “This is not about making commitments it is about delivering commitments.”

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In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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