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Civil Society at the 2009 G8 Summit in L'Aquila

Peter Hajnal[1], University of Toronto
November 10, 2009

The 2009 L’Aquila G8 summit was the fifth such leaders’ meeting held in Italy. The summit convened in an atmosphere still dominated by the global economic and financial crisis that blossomed in late 2008. In response to that crisis, the leaders of the Group of Twenty (G20) met for the first time ever in Washington in November 2008 and for a second time in London in April 2009. The complex relationship between that new forum and G8 summits is still evolving.

The original summit venue was the island of La Maddalena. But the host leader, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that the location would change to earthquake-stricken L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region, in order to help the region’s economy; what he did not announce was another reason for the change: security concerns around La Maddalena, an area that was vulnerable to potential terrorist attacks.

Civil society, as in the past, was again very active before and during the summit. Actions included dialogue with G8 officials, alternative summits, meetings of specific groups of stakeholders, and street demonstrations, among others.

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On 4-5 May 2009 a conference named “Roma Civil G8” met in Campidoglio in Rome. It was organized by the Municipality of Rome in collaboration with the Italian Prime Minister’s office, the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Italian Coalition against Poverty (GCAP Italy). The first day featured closed-door workshops, and on the second day a dialogue was held with all nine sherpas (from each G8 country and the European Union) and a smaller group of Italian and international civil society representatives, in the presence of the entire forum of over 200 attendees. Participating NGOs prepared and gave to the sherpas a statement on issues of concern to civil society on: the world economy, development finance and labour; common goods including health and education; food sovereignty and agriculture; global governance; climate change and environment; and accountability and other issues. Participants voiced the wish to have these issues addressed by the L’Aquila summit. The host sherpa, on his part, expressed willingness to continue the dialogue in the run-up to the July summit.[2]

Trade union involvement — following a long G7/G8 tradition — was also part of the L’Aquila process. A tripartite consultation (trade unions, employers and the host government including Prime Minister Berlusconi) was held the week before the summit, resulting in agreement by all three parties that employment was at the heart of the economic crisis. The talks arrived at unanimous support for the Global Jobs Pact adopted at the ILO in June 2009.

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Alternative summits and other stakeholders’ meetings

Following the long-standing practice of counter-summits, representatives of Italian and international civil society gathered in Sardinia for their alternative G8 summit (nicknamed “GSott8”) on 3-5 July, just before the official G8 summit in L’Aquila. The final statement of the alternative summit included strong words on the climate crisis and a call for common sense in the use of natural resources, particularly by elites of the North and worldwide; it condemned wastefulness and exploitation in the extractive industries and demanded drasting changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns on order to phase out the oil economy. It called for “reclaiming public policies for the common good” and resisting corporate globalization, stating that “the G8 cannot decide for the world. The people must!”[3] Another alternative summit was held in Rome just prior to the G8 summit. It brought together international NGOs and a representative from the sherpa team of the host government.

A “poor people’s summit” (an annual event convened in Mali since 2002) met once again in Mali (this year in Bandiagara under the name Forum des peoples), bringing together almost a thousand participants. The delegates debated the challenges posed by the financial crisis to African populations, social movements and governments. This “poor people’s summit” aimed to prevent the G8’s monopoly on having a voice on global issues.[4]

On February 13, 2009 a Global Health Forum was held in Rome — the second such gathering of government officials, business leaders, academics, NGOs and the media. The forum prepared a list of policy recommendations for the G8 aiming to keep health on the official G8 agenda. The third annual G8 Youth Summit took place at Bocconi University in Milan on March 15-19; it saw youth representatives from 21 countries discussing issues on the G8’s agenda.

On March 19, leaders of farmers’ unions from each G8 country met to discuss world hunger, food security, climate change and the economic crisis — the first meeting of this kind. The meeting produced a document that was presented to the G8 agriculture ministers at their April meeting. This was one of several examples of civil society engaging the broader G8 system.

Religious leaders have held meetings on four previous occasions in connection with G8 summits (starting with the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit). The fifth such meeting, the Italian Interfaith Leaders’ Summit, was convened by the Italian Bishops Conference with the support of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The meeting was held in Rome on 16-17 June with the participation of 120 delegates from a wide variety of faith communities who discussed the challenges of health, development and Africa, particularly in light of the Millennium Development Goals. They issued a joint statement aimed at the G8 leaders.[5] And just before the summit (on 29 June), Pope Benedict XVI weighed in with his lengthy encyclical, Caritas in Veritate [Charity and Truth], addressed “To the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Men and Women Religious, the Lay Faithful, and All People of Good Will”. In it, he pronounced on themes of: human development; fraternity, economic development and civil society; rights and duties; the environment; co-operation; and technology.[6]

The G8 Parliamentarians group held its fifth annual conference in Rome on 22-23 June. Hosted by the Italian Parliamentary Working Group on Global Health and Women’s Rights, the conference was organised by GCAP Italy, Action Aid, the Italian Association for Women in Development (AIDOS), the German Foundation for World Population (DSW) and the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF) in co-operation with Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD), the Asia Population and Development Association (APDA) and Interact Worldwide. It brought together parliamentarians from the G8 countries and those from other Asian, African and European countries. It issued an appeal to G8 governments, based on the theme “Strategic Investments in Times of Crisis: The Rewards of Making Women’s Health a Priority”. The “civil society” status of the G8 Parliamentarians group is somewhat unclear; the parliamentarians in their own countries’ legislatures are part of the elected political establishment but when meeting as G8 Parliamentarians they do so in a different capacity.[7]

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Street demonstrations have been a feature of summit-related NGO action for many years. Generally, they have tended to be peaceful ways of advocacy and protest. In Italy, there were some demonstrations in Rome on the 7th of July but only a few protests, although some clashes with police occurred around a US military base prior to the G8 summit.[8] This was in sharp contrast with the previous G8 summit held in Italy — in Genoa 2001 — where, despite the overall peaceful nature of demonstrations, there was a great deal of violence, many injuries, arrests, and the tragic death of a protester at the hands of inexperienced and over-eager police.

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Evaluation and Monitoring

These have become an important G8-related action of civil society groups. A good example is the work of the DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) group; they have undertaken this since 2006, in light of G8 commitments made at the 2005 Gleneagles summit and since. In 2009, DATA’s fourth report assessed past performance and made projections for 2009, on key commitments of G8 governments on the quantity and quality of development assistance, debt, trade, and other commitments related to the Millennium Development Goals. The report noted uneven progress among G8 countries: good advances on HIV/AIDS but less on other health issues; some progress on primary school education, but inadequate movement on agriculture, water and sanitation and some other sectors.[9]

WWF’s climate scorecard is another example of detailed evaluation of G8 performance, in that particular sector. The 2009 scorecards, issued shortly before the L’Aquila summit, rank G8 countries by emission trend, distance to Kyoto target, increase of renewable, emissions per capita and per GDP, energy efficiency of industry, negotiation leadership, and other indicators. Overall, Germany scores the highest “average” but still not “good” and far below “target performance”. The UK, France, Italy and Japan are successively lower within the “average” range. Russia, the US and Canada are all in the “poor” range, with Canada at the bottom. The report also gives background information on China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa.[10]

On matters of corruption, Transparency International has been in civil society’s forefront for some years. In 2009, TI issued its third annual G8 Progress Report reviewing G8 implementation of existing agreements such as the OECE Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions and the UN Convention against Corruption. TI found performance on anti-corruption commitment inadequate, and called on G8 governments to make good on their promise to “make every effort to pursue maximum country participation and swift and resolute implementation” of their commitments, noting that “as the world’s leading economies, G8 countries bear a special responsibility to ensure that transparency, accountability and integrity are at the forefront of the global agenda. The backdrop of the global economic crisis increases the urgency for G8 countries to fulfil and build on past pledges. Committed and concerted action is needed to shield the most vulnerable from being affected disproportionately by the crisis and to restore global confidence and growth.”[11]

The G8 Research Group, an academic think tank, has issued compliance reports on G8 summit commitments since 1996. For example, the 2008 Hokkaido Summit Final Compliance Report, covering the period 9 July 2008 to 1 July 2009, identified a total of 296 commitments contained in the major documents of the summit, and selected 20 for evaluation. These include the following issues: finance; energy; intellectual property rights, climate change; biodiversity; Africa (Official Development Assistance, trade); health (health systems and infectious disease, neglected tropical diseases, peace support, food and agriculture); education; non-proliferation; biofuels; terrorism; and regional security.[12] A similar type of assessment in respect of the L’Aquila summit will become available in the summer of 2010.

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Other action

For the fourth time in G8 history, delegations from academies of science met in Rome on March 26-27, with participation from the G8 countries and from the G5 of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Egypt, too, took part, following Berlusconi’s invitation to that country to discussions during part of the G8 summit. The academicians discussed energy technologies and international migration. The G8+5 academies later issued a joint statement on 11 June on climate change and energy technologies, calling for a global transformation of energy strategies.[13]

Trade unions issued their own statement aimed at the L’Aquila summit. The statement dealt with: recovery and sustainable growth in jobs and incomes; repairing the financial system, public finances and taxation; building effective global governance; fulfilling promises on development; and working for an ambitious result at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009.[14]

Several petitions were launched in connection with the G8 summit; for example, the “Press the 8” campaign headed by GCAP Italy and End Water Poverty’s G8 petition. In the final two weeks, civil society groups stepped up their pressure, resulting with meetings with the host government. Notably, GCAP Italy succeeded in arranging a meeting with Prime Minister Berlusconi, handing over to him some 1.5 million petitions calling on him to deliver on health, water and education issues.[15]

Civil society has gradually become more skilled and sophisticated in using the media for advocacy and to publicize its messages widely. In addition to a number of interviews in the press and on radio, television and other visual media, 2009 saw a major advance when, in the lead-up to the summit, as the ONE organization and its celebrity associate Bob Geldof guest-edited an issue of the popular newspaper La Stampa. This special Sunday edition (5 July) on Africa contained articles by various other celebrities, including the US President, Archbishop Tutu, Sophia Loren and Bono, as well as an interview with Berlusconi, who “apologized for his government’s reduction of aid to Africa. The edition was well received and went along way in raising the critical issues with the wider Italian public.”[16]

Some NGO groups performed various stunts during the summit in order to bring urgent concerns to the attention of the media and the public. For example, on 9 July a Greenpeace paraglider flew by the two chimneys of the Vado Ligure, Italy coal-fired power station while Greenpeace activists affixed the message “Time To Act on Climate’ and “G8: Lead On Climate” on the chimney façade. On the same day, Greenpeace painted the slogan “G8: Lead or Lose” on the Marghera coal fired power plant in Venice, in an effort to motivate the G8 leaders to commit to combat climate change more vigorously. Oxfam paraded figures of the G8 leaders dressed in togas “for the burning of Rome.[17]

Workspace for NGOs was provided in the official International Media Centre for the L’Aquila summit. Such access — which implies media accreditation for NGO representatives — has been a feature of G8 summits at least since 2005. This is an indicator of the host government’s willingness to accommodate civil society.

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G8 Acknowledgement of Civil Society

Official G8 documents and leaders’ press conferences are important indicators of civil society impact on the G8. In contrast with many recent G8 summits, in 2009 the Chair’s Summary does not mention civil society, but the main document of the summit, the G8 Declaration: Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future makes ten such references, in a multi-stakeholder context, in connection with forests and land degradation, biodiversity, and development and Africa, the last including food security, water and sanitation, and governance. In a rare acknowledgement of a global civil society campaign, the G8 Declaration: Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future stated: “We welcome major global campaigns to promote support for education, through international events, such as the FIFA World Cup in 2010.” The same document also welcomed “the creation of an international Task Force on ‘Teachers forEFA’ [Education for All], aiming to address the ‘teacher gap’.”[18]

Some, but not all, other documents of the summit refer to civil society. Examples are: the declaration on Political Issues (on Pakistan), the Joint [G8 plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Egypt and the European Union] Declaration: Promoting the Global Agenda (on governance & accountability), the L’Aquila Joint [G8 plus a number of invited countries and international organizations] Statement on Global Food Security, the Concluding Report of the Heiligendamm Process, and various reports of G8 expert groups to the leaders.[19]

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Civil Society’s Views on the L’Aquila Summit

To illustrate civil society’s mixed verdict on the L’Aquila summit, here are some examples of press releases and campaign articles. Make Poverty History Canada characterized the G8 Declaration on the global economy, climate change and development as “disastrously out of touch with the reality of life today for the world’s poorest.”[20] Save the Children UK asserted that the “summit offered few breakthroughs on the urgent needs of the poor, especially at a time of economic crisis when they are at most risk,” adding, however, that the food security initiative and the announcement of a global consensus on maternal, newborn and child health were encouraging signs, provided that all stakeholders, not just the G8, exercise strong leadership.[21] Also on food security, The ONE organization, co-founded by Bono, welcomed the G8’s US$20 billion agreement to support the world’s poorest farmers, but emphasized that real progress was urgently needed.[22] ActionAid, too, acknowledged progress on food aid but noted that fulfilment of development aid promises and climate change undertakings were insufficient.[23]

Oxfam’s end-of-summit press release was more severe in its criticism of the L’Aquila summit: “This summit has been a shambles, it did nothing for Africa, and the world is still being cooked.” It assessed the summit’s Africa discussion as no more than a token session. The organization was more generous on acknowledging progress on food aid, as did other NGOs. But on climate change, it asserted: “With the 2 degree limit, the G8 effectively agreed the climate floodwaters shouldn’t reach the ceiling. But they did nothing about the water already swirling around our necks.” It called for the G8 to step up delivery of real action.[24] Tearfund, a Christian relief and development agency, on the one hand welcomed the G8 commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent and the acknowledgment of the need to keep global temperature rises below two degrees, but, on the other hand, asserted that the leaders in L’Aquila “squandered the opportunity this week to put their money where their mouths are and deliver climate finance for poor countries to help in their response to climate change”. It looked to the September 2009 Pittsburgh G20 summit to do better.[25]

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), in a press release covering both the G8 summit and the simultaneous meeting of the Major Economies Forum, lamented the fact that these two fora could not overcome divisions and mistrust, and, despite some progress, leaders of the rich nations failed to take responsibility for climate change.[26] Also on the climate issue, Greenpeace International declared that “the G8 meeting in Italy ended with scant progress on saving the climate” and, in even stronger words, that “the G8 leaders have abdicated action on climate change to future generations. They have left those least able to tackle climate change even more vulnerable to its devastating effects.”[27]

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The L’Aquila summit met at a time of great transformation of geopolitical realities and of the G8 institution itself. Civil society has recognized, as have several G8 leaders themselves, that that western-inspired and western-ruled forum cannot continue as before. With the rapidly increasing economic weight of the major developing countries and with the emergence of other groupings such as the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the G5 (Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Mexico) and, most of all, the G20 leaders’ summits, civil society action must move to address these changes in an effective fashion which has yet to crystallize. But, one thing is clear: in many ways, the Italian summit was very much a prelude to the September 2009 Pittsburgh G20 summit. As well, with the 2010 Huntsville summit in Canada, another G8 cycle comes to an end, with the announced intention of the Canadian host government to turn it, at least partially, into a G20 summit. Will the G8 complete its transformation then, or will it have to wait for the leadership of France in 2011?

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[1] I wish to thank civil society and academic friends and colleagues, for sharing their insight and observations.

[2]  Italian government G8 2009 website.  Civil G8 Calls for New Global Governance.  [5] July 2009.; ANSA. Poorer Nations Promised G8 Voice.  5 May 2009.; and Coalizione Italiana contro la Povertà.  Civil G8 2009… CSO Representatives’ Statement.  5 May 2009.

[3]  The Alternative G8 Summit: Final Summary Statement. 8 July 2009.

[4] G8 : près d’un milliers d’altermondialistes au «Sommet des pauvres» du Mali. 7 July 2008.

[5]  Summit of Religious Leaders on the Occasion of the G8, Rome, 16-17 June 2009.  Final

[6]  Vatican. Caritas in Veritate.  29 June 2009.

[7]   International Parliamentarians Conference, 2009. Parliamentary Appeal to G8 Heads of State and Governments.  Rome, 23 June 2009.'%20Conference%20Appeal.pdf

[8] See

[9] DATA and ONE. The 2009 Data Report: Monitoring the G8 Promise to Africa.

[10] World Wide Fund for Nature and Allianz.  G8 Climate Scorecards 2009.  July 2009.

[11]  Transparency International.  G8 Progress Report 2009: An Assessment of G8 Action on Anti-Corruption

[12]  G8 Research Group.  2008 Hokkaido-Toyako G8 Summit Final Compliance Report.  30 June 2009

[13]  The Royal Society.  G8+5 Academies’ Joint Statement: Climate Change and the Transformation of Energy Technologies for a Low Carbon Future.

[14]  International Trade Union Confederation.  Putting Jobs and Fairness at the Heart of Recovery: the role of the G8.  10 June 2009.

[15]   See

[16]  La Stampa: Numero Speziale per il G8 Africa.  5 July 2009.

[17] See

[18]  G8 Summit, L’Aquila, 2009.  G8 Declaration: Responsible Leadership for a Sustainable Future.  8 July 2009.  Paragraph 127

[19]  For the text of summit documents, see the Italian government’s L’Aquila summit website and the website of the G8 Research Group at

[20] Make Poverty History Canada.  G8 Declaration a Disaster for the World’s Poor.  9 July 2009.

[21]  Save the Children.  Lacklustre Summit Ends with Seeds of Possibility.  10 July 2009.

[22] The ONE.  ONE Reaction to G8 Food Security Communiqué. [10?] July 2009.

[23] ActionAid.  G8 2009: What Did They Deliver?  10 July 2009.

[24]  Oxfam International.  Oxfam’s Verdict on the G8 Summit: Cooking the Books and Cooking the Planet.  10 July 2009.

[25]  Tearfund.  G8 Leaders Fail to Deliver, but Provide a Snapshot of Hope for the Future.  10 July 2009.

[26] World Wide Fund for Nature.  G8 and MEF Climate Talks: It’s Progress but Still Not Fair! 10 July 2009.

[27] Greenpeace International.  G8 puts off climate change action to 2050.

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