The G8 and G20 summits at a glance

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As the dates for the G8 and G20 summits approach you may be wondering what they are, when they're happening and what cast of characters will descend on Toronto and Huntsville in the weeks to come.

Here's a short primer including some of the salient history, agenda items, points of opposition and related background reading on the upcoming G8 and G20 summits and why they matter.

A brief history

The Group of Eight consists of the United States, United Kingdom, France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia. The G8 meetings were designed to be informal working meetings to discuss issues of mutual international interest. They are short, intensive face-to-face meetings whose objective is to have world leaders get to know one another better and facilitate the co-ordination of inter-governmental agreements and operations.

The role of host country for the G8 summit rotates each year. The G8 summit in Huntsville, Ont., from June 25 to 27, 2010, is the second time a leaders summit has been hosted in the Toronto area, the first being a G7 summit hosted by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. Suggestions have been made that the upcoming G8 Summit may be the last G8 meeting.

The first G20 Leaders Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy took place in Washington, D.C. in Nov. 2008. The 2008 meeting was organized to respond to the global financial crisis. The G20 countries agreed on how to cooperate in key areas so as to strengthen economic growth, deal with the financial crisis, and lay the foundation for reform to avoid similar crises in the future. Subsequent G20 meetings in 2009 took place in London, U.K., and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The next G20 meeting after Toronto will take place in Seoul, South Korea, in Nov. 2010.

More useful background here. And useful history here.

The 2010 agenda and beyond -- critical issues and policy impacts

The economy, employment and environment will be high priority issues on the agenda at upcoming G8 and G20 summits. However, since the financial crisis in the fall of 2008, emergency management of the financial system and the broader economy top the international agenda while environmental issues have taken something of a back seat. Now the debt crisis in Europe has emerged and the question of a possible decoupling of the euro has sprung into open public discourse.

Consumer debt reform while understood to be a key driver of broad-based economic growth has been the subject of intense special interest lobbying efforts -- especially in the U.S. Lacklustre job creation, wage growth and the dearth of new personal credit availability has resulted in the U.S. consumer being tapped out and significantly reduced new financing for small and medium-sized businesses. The ongoing disconnect between global labour arbitrage, lack of robust employment and wage growth and record household debt levels continue to hamper growth in mature economies.

Global trade and currency imbalances are as strained they have ever been with national governments hamstrung by domestic political and economic imperatives. Other hindrances to recovery include a general incapacity to rapidly implement structural reforms and adjustments and foster meaningful social innovation. Funding shortages continue to be barriers and impediments to renewed economic growth. The conundrum continues to be that trigger-shy banks have been reluctant to risk lending into a soft economy without which investment and savings are strangling new growth.

In the social sector, deep structural and financial issues continue to hobble new initiatives in the non-profit and charitable foundations sectors. Indeed some U.S. charities are still under water, having lost fortunes in ill-conceived speculative hedging. As the host country of the G8 and G20 summits, Canada has been attempting to avoid issues such as access to abortion, the global bank tax and climate change being put on the formal agendas. Pressure from other international institutions, national governments and civil society groups may very well force these some or all of issues to be addressed in the final communiqués of the respective summits.  

Opposition and dissent 

The 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference was a significant landmark in the history of a global civil society groups effectively mobilizing large public protests against leaders summits in general. Policy makers were forced to take into account the massive capacity of the NGO sector to mount effective opposition campaigns some of which resulted in serious violence and rioting. Ignoring large-scale dissenting voices and concerns has become politically unpalatable.

Groups tend to want to use these high profile meetings to showcase their opposition to prevailing policy and governance in the media. Beyond the real life theatrics of discontent the sad reality has become that these informal talks rarely live up to the specific commitments contained within their official communiqués. Credibility has been a factor in the G20 evolving into a leaders summit rather than just a ministerial forum. Many have suggested that this may be the last time a G8 specific meeting is held.

Democratic legitimacy, national self-interest, public input and protest flashpoints -- much criticism has focused on the insular policy making mechanisms of high-level government interaction. Formal engagement of NGOs has become part of the dialogue and decision-making process in recent years however the effectiveness, accountability and credibility of these communication lines remains very much an open question.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has recently expressed his opinion that economic discussions have become somewhat upstaged by the civil society "sideshows" which mobilize around leaders summits and that this dilutes the focus and intent of these meetings. Critics have long argued that seeing economics through a narrow prism neglects legitimate human security, industrial relations and labour concerns as well as trans-border environmental issues such as climate change.

Further relevant reading and information links:

Morgan Gabereau is a writer-director based in Toronto, and is a member of's summit coverage team.

Further Reading

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