Sunday, June 27, 2010

My take on the G8/G20 summits in Toronto

TORONTO, Canada — It’s been a raucous and, in some ways, surprising three days here at the overlapping G8 and G20 Canadian summits. I was struck by four issues that emerged at the summits — logistics, media access, NGO reaction and media interest in maternal and child health

First, there have never been two summits at the same time in the same country. The G8 ran Friday and Saturday in a remote area two hours north of here by road called Muskoka, in the town of Huntsville. Because of the limited facilities there, very few journalists (and no NGO representative that I know of) had access and those few that did had to be up at 3:00 am to go through security and catch the bus in Toronto for the long trip north to Huntsville. Reporters on these buses did one of two things — sleep and work on their laptops and cell phones — and so the only sound in the buses was the clacking of keys on electronic devices. And the G20 was Saturday and Sunday in Toronto, but the leaders were still separated from the media and NGOs, albeit by one mile instead of 200.

Second, the issue of media access to NGOs has been a big issue for the NGOs throughout the summits and continues to be. At recent summits, including both of those last year in Italy and Pittsburgh, NGOs, for the most part, had full access to the international media. This worked to the advantage of both parties and ensured that journalists had just as much access to civil society as they did to governmental delegations who, understandably, want to spin things in their favor (as does civil society).

For some reason which no one understands, the Canadian government thought this was a bad idea and decided to put the NGOs in an “Alternative Media Center” and segregate the two groups in separate buildings across the street from each other. The difference is that the one for the media is surrounded by a high fence and concrete barriers and NGOs are not allowed in without an invitation from someone with proper media credentials. Most of us in civil society have not been invited across the street, and few reporters leave the comfort of their media center to come to us.

The Global Health Council was one of 12 non-governmental organizations that put out a statement critical of the Canadian government for this “media apartheid” which produced an article in Saturday's Toronto Star.

But another aspect of media and civil society access was less commented upon. At the 2009 G8 in L’Aquila, Italy, we all — journalists and NGOs — had access to the heads of state and the country delegations. That is, we were all in the same facility, inside the same perimeter. Because of that, I was able to attend a press conference with President Obama, Prime Minister Harper and other G8 leaders without going through security again. That was not the case in Pittsburgh. And here in Toronto, even most of the mainstream media does not have access to the heads of state, who are in the Toronto Convention Center a mile away from here. In a press briefing this morning by South Korea, the host of the next G20 in November, we were told that Seoul will revert to the L’Aquila model, where we are all together in the same location.

Third, it was interesting to see the different reactions in the NGO community to the announcement of the $7.3 billion, five-year Muskoka Initiative on maternal, newborn, child and reproductive health championed by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even though this is a huge win for global health advocates, given the relative attention that global health attracted at the 2009 summits, the NGO reaction was somewhat, though not uniformly, negative. Generally, the pure advocacy organizations (like the ONE Campaign) and the large implementing organizations that work in many areas of development (like Save the Children and Oxfam) were negative. But the organizations which focus on health,like the Global Health Council and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, both organizations representing hundreds of other organizations, were much more upbeat about the Muskoka Initiative. As was the African Medical and Relief Foundation (AMREF), the only indigenous African health organization present in Toronto

The Washington Post, one of the few U.S. mainstream media outlets to give this story any legs, published a story entitled “Aid group slams lack of financial support for maternal and child health initiative.” based on quotes only from Save the Children and Oxfam, two of the NGOs that did get into the media center. Other organizations, with more positive perspectives, were not interviewed because they were not in the media center to be interviewed. The Post later published my letter expressing my concerns about that situation.

In this case, it appears that the Canadian government strategy backfired as they might have gotten a better story out on their flagship G8 initiative if they had allowed full access between media and NGOs.

Finally, the Muskoka Initiative on maternal and child health got very good media coverage in Canada (it was front page news on the front of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s premier newspaper, on Saturday, and it was surprisingly prominent in the Canadian TV coverage that I saw). People on the street knew about it; my taxi driver on Saturday night, originally from Bangladesh, told me it was the best story coming out of the G8 and would improve a lot of lives.

I understand why this initiative was a big story in Canada since it is a Canadian initiative and the summits are taking place in Canada. But I wish that the U.S. media had paid more attention to what may be the only truly positive story coming out of the summits. And I wish the NGO community had been more welcoming of what is a highly positive development and a step — if not a leap — in the right direction.

Stephen Harper said something in his press conference on Friday night about the Muskoka Initiative that I liked so much I put it in our G8 press release: "Of all things we could spend our money on, who wouldn't want to spend to save the life of a mother who would otherwise die?"

Friday, June 25, 2010

NGOs feeling mixed as Canadian summits open

TORONTO, Canada — As world leaders arrive in Canada for the twin G8 and G20 summits, we, in the NGO community who advocate for global health, have decidedly mixed feelings about the annual gatherings of world leaders.

On the one hand, we are excited that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pushing for a $1 billion Canadian initiative on maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH), a surprising development when it was announced in January since Harper is not known as a champion of international development, and since MNCH was almost completely ignored at the 2009 G8 in Italy and G20 in Pittsburgh. We are grateful to our colleagues in Canadian civil society for their efforts in making that happen.

At the same, NGOs are profoundly disappointed with the tone the same Canadian government has set by barring NGOs and civil society from the international media center for the first time in recent history. In both L’Aquila, Italy and Pittsburgh last year, NGOs and media shared the same media center in a way that was mutually beneficial for both parties.

We don’t understand why the Canadian government felt it necessary to segregate the NGOS in separate facilities. The International Media Center — the “real” media center — is across the street from the “Alternative” Media Center (where the NGOs are congregated and from where I write this) but the “real” center is surrounded by a wire fence and concrete barriers, apparently to impede aggressive NGO representatives, who have to be invited in by journalists.

The Harper government seems to be going in a different direction from the United Nations, which last week opened its process leading to September’s summit on the Millennium Development Goals to civil society and the private sector for the first time, with informal and interactive hearings to get various perspectives on how to accelerate progress towards achieving the MDGs.

Interaction, the coalition of U.S. NGOs with which Global Health Council shares reciprocal membership), felt so strongly about this adverse development that they decided not to send anyone to Toronto, even though it normally coordinates the U.S. civil society presence at these summits. Yesterday, Interaction issued a statement critical of this lack of access, which makes it more difficult to achieve a “transparent monitoring system” that is needed to evaluate if donor countries actually honor their commitments.

U.S. President Barack Obama just arrived at Toronto airport, the last G8 leader to arrive, and is helicoptering to Muskoka, the remote resort area north of here, for the beginning of the G8 Summit. The G20 Summit starts here in Toronto tomorrow.

For great background information and useful links on the G8 and G20 summits, go to the Council's special G8G20 webpage.