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Thursday, 20 July, 2000, 19:21 GMT 20:21 UK
Analysis: What will the G8 achieve?
Okinawa residents protesting against US bases
Summits have become an occasion for protests
By Diplomatic Correspondent Barnaby Mason

Leaders of the world's seven leading economic powers are meeting together with Russia on the Japanese island of Okinawa, under pressure to do more for the poor.

Debt relief, the digital divide and the drive against Aids are all on the agenda.

Also jostling for the attention of the G8, as they are collectively known, are a crowd of tricky political issues - with North Korea and US plans for anti-missile defence at the forefront.

But with so much on the agenda, it is unclear what the leaders will achieve.

Japan's hopes

It is the most expensive G7 or G8 summit ever.

Japan has spent $750m on facilities and security, not just for the leaders but for the associated ministerial meetings.

Nigerian and South African presidents
This time, developing countries are represented
It is a vital matter of prestige for the Japanese hosts.

They had some anxious moments wondering whether US President Bill Clinton was going to turn up, after he delayed his arrival and cancelled part of his programme in order to wrestle one more day with Palestinian and Israeli leaders at Camp David.

The Japanese like everything to go smoothly and they dislike arguments.

But G8 summits these days are occasions for others to put rich countries on the spot.

Several Third World leaders went to Japan to lobby in person, adding their voices to the Jubilee 2000 campaign for cancelling the debts of the 40 poorest countries, most of them in Africa.

The campaigners are seizing the opportunity for petitions and protest marches.

Debt relief

At the Cologne summit last year, the G7 announced a $70bn dollar package of debt relief, but actual delivery is running behind schedule.

IT conference in Nairobi
Will information technology further divide the world?
Only nine of the 40 countries concerned have received approval so far.

The World Bank has called for the process to be speeded up and made more flexible; the relief organisation Oxfam says it is proceeding at a glacial pace and the historic promises have been left hanging in the air.

Beyond debt relief, there is a wider unease that economic globalisation and the revolution in information technology are leaving developing countries ever farther behind.

Bridging the digital divide, to use the fashionable phrase, is an explicit theme of the Okinawa summit.

Japan has promised a very large sum in aid for the purpose.

The details of any action plan are vague, but there is talk of using IT in education and health care in poor countries; that echoes recent proposals put forward by the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.

The World Bank appealed to the summit to make sure that the power of globalisation was harnessed to reduce poverty and disease world-wide.

The Bank called for an international drive against Aids, malaria and tuberculosis; the British government said it hoped the G8 would set targets.

Russia's debut

This may be an economic summit, but politics usually dominate.

It is the first G8 for the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and as it happens he is at the centre of two hot political issues, which are linked - developments on the Korean peninsular and controversial US plans for a national missile defence system.

Mr Putin visited China and North Korea on the way to Okinawa.

Russian president Putin visiting China
Putin hopes to exploit opposition to US missile plans
In Beijing he issued a joint statement with the Chinese condemning the proposed anti-missile shield.

In Pyongyang, he announced that the North Koreans - painted by the United States as the main threat it was seeking to counter - would give up their missile programme if other countries provided them with rockets for space research.

As the bearer of this vague offer, Mr Putin is clearly seeking to exploit opposition to the American plans among Washington's allies in the G8.

He has tried to take the initiative, rather than see Russia as the target of criticism.

Russia just wants to be treated as an equal, with respect, he says; it is not attending the summit cap in hand.

But of course in economic terms Russia is vastly different from the rest of the G8 - they still meet some of the time as the G7; while its step-by-step entry into the summits over the past few years has weakened the cohesion of the group in political matters.

Not what they used to be

There have been other changes too.

When they began in the mid-1970s, these meetings of the western powers were rare opportunities for wide-ranging and informal private conversations, with no particular outcome.

They have become increasingly public and grandiose, conducted in the glare of the media and expected to produce solutions to the world's problems -- or at least news.

They have become more like other summits, with the politicians performing for their constituencies at home.

The G7 have on occasion produced initiatives that made a difference - co-ordinating measures against organised crime and terrorism, for example.

They certainly have the weight to influence events.

The moves to reduce the burden of debt on the poor are potentially highly significant.

But in the aftermath of last December's riots in Seattle, which saw the failure to launch a new round of trade negotiations, the atmosphere has soured between rich and poor, big corporations and anti-capitalist campaigners.

At the Okinawa G8 summit, the question is whether the rich countries will deliver on their promises or simply draw up more declarations.

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