WHEN I landed in Toronto two weeks ago I was told that the city was in the grip of summit fever. Canada was to play host to two international conferences back to back — the G8 and G20.
Last weekend these conferences were held amid much brouhaha. The media was in a frenzy, raising all kinds of questions. Was it wise to hold such a summit in downtown Toronto, when such meetings traditionally act as a magnet for protesters? Was such a massive attendance warranted — the number had swollen to 34 as some leaders were invited as observers only to be seen, not heard? Was the price tag on security — a hefty $1.1bn — justified?
Was it right to disrupt people's lives for several days by turning the city into Fortress Toronto, with 20,000 police officers deployed on the ground and a $500m-fence erected to barricade the Convention Centre? It was shocking when these measures failed to maintain peace.
The protest marches saw 10,000 people on the streets wanting to make their voices heard on a variety of issues ranging from poverty, the environment, joblessness, maternal health and more. As in any democracy, Canada recognises such protests — so long as they are peaceful — as legitimate. But when demonstrations turn ugly, as happened in Toronto last Saturday, they lose their popular support. After showing some restraint initially, the police struck back and 900 people were picked up, some to be released a few hours later.
The violence was attributed to the Black Bloc, a new phenomenon for me but a familiar one in the West. Apparently Black Bloc protesters have been around for two decades and the term describes anarchists who openly espouse violence. Opposing the organised state system, they are characterised by their tactics. Dressed in black with their faces masked, they move with great agility discarding their black clothing to disguise their identity as they dissolve into the crowd.
Black Bloc protesters were expected to strike. They had disrupted the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in 1999 and the Canadian authorities were determined not to let that happen again. As a result, the G20 summit went smoothly but the participants probably had no inkling of the drama being enacted outside the Convention Centre. It was shocking to see all that violence on the television screens in a country known to be peaceful.
Hence the big question of the day was whether the interruption caused by violent elements had allowed the message of genuine protesters to get through to the summit leaders. For me a visitor from the Third World what was striking was the globalisation of popular concern for poverty, lack of access to healthcare and joblessness.
Many political commentators asked if the two summits would actually serve any purpose. Of late it is being said that the G8 — the club of the world's richest formed in 1975 — has outlived its utility. It was supposed to be an informal gathering to enable the big powers to coordinate their policies. But today it virtually shapes the world economy. Doubts about its future were laid to rest when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper categorically announced that the G8 members had decided it was there to stay.
It was, however, conceded that the G20 has more relevance today. The G8's failure to address the problems of the emerging economies had led to the birth of the G20 in 1999 soon after the 1997 financial crisis in Southeast Asia. The major economies of the Third World, such as China, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Argentina and others had then joined hands with the eight in a new grouping.
When it was launched, the G20's business was conducted by the finance ministers. It was upgraded in November 2008 when a summit-level meeting was held in Washington. Its role in stabilising the world fiscal system and the economic recovery process has made it the premier global steering body today, representing as it does two-thirds of the world population, 85 per cent of the world economy and 80 per cent of international trade.
Since then summits have been held twice a year. The leaders who met in Toronto will meet again in November in Seoul. Opponents have challenged the right of the G20 to take decisions on behalf of the 192 UN members.
In Toronto a lot of concern was expressed about the global economic recovery which was described as fragile. Most worrying is the problem of unemployment. But solutions are not easy because there are sharp divisions among members on the strategy to be adopted. The communiquÃ© that was issued was kept ambivalent enough to paper these differences.
As Mr Harper declared they had to do a lot of tightrope walking between cutting deficits and sustaining stimulus spending. He managed to have his targets inserted in the document — halve deficits by 2013 and cut back on debts by 2016 — but they were not mandatory. Every country was given the right to set its own pace. Similar was the approach to the strategy on fiscal reforms. Each government would do what it deemed right.
Even the G8, which justified its existence as a smaller body with more resources to handle development issues, failed to pledge the full amount for the $5bn fund for maternal health proposed by Mr Harper. Naturally there was much scepticism about the promises being kept, considering their Muskoka Accountability Report that assessed their progress on the promises made in 2005 for development aid. A shortfall of $10bn was recorded.
The protesters who became the focal point of the summits were not off the mark when they claimed that the poor of the world were being ignored by world leaders. This was confirmed by the annual world wealth report issued by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini last week. It pointed out that the number of “high net worth individuals” (HNWI) — each with more than $1m of free cash — has returned to the pre-2008 crisis level.
So the rich who were hurt by the recession have recovered. There are 10 million HNWIs in the world today and half of them live in the US, Japan and Germany. But the poor continue to grow poorer as more join their ranks.