Boris Johnson went into this weekend’s G7 summit promising to “vaccinate the world”. But by Sunday night it was clear that even the much anticipated – and completely insufficient – pledge to donate one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the middle of next year would not be met. Neither was there any radical announcement on climate change or on cancelling Southern debt. In the words of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the summit would “go down as an unforgivable moral failure”.
Vaccines dominated this G7, unsurprisingly given the stark inequality in the vaccine rollout globally. While G7 nations are vaccinating their citizens at a rate of 4.6 million people a day, low-income countries can only manage 63,000. The G7 will have vaccinated almost all of its citizens by the end of the year while, at current rates, low-income countries would be waiting 57 years. That is why the global South is demanding rich countries support a waiver on intellectual property rules to allow countries around the world to ramp up production as quickly as possible. But with the very important exception of US President Biden, and occasionally promising noises from French President Macron, the G7 has largely sided with the big pharmaceutical corporations in protecting the right to profit no matter what the cost in lives.
These leaders wanted to use the G7 summit to prove they could help the global South while leaving Big Pharma’s profits intact. On Friday, one billion doses were put on the table. This would only have been sufficient to immunise about 10 percent of the globally unvaccinated population. By Sunday, this number had fallen to 870 million, of which only about 600 million were genuinely “new”, most of which would not be offered until next year, and some of which seem closer to exports (they will need to be paid for) rather than donations.
When we bear in mind that a single factory in Bangladesh could produce between 600 and 800 million doses a year if patents were waived, it becomes clear that this G7 pledge does not even function as a fig leaf.
Beyond vaccines, the pandemic has triggered a debt crisis in many countries, which could heighten poverty and inequality for a generation. Yet the G7 offered nothing new to change this situation, in particular taking no action against the banks and hedge funds which continue to drain billions of dollars a year from countries that should be spending on healthcare and economic protection. And on the major issue of our times, halting climate change, the summit merely reaffirmed a decade-old target to give developing countries $100bn a year to adapt to climate change – a promise which they have already failed to honour in practice – and made a commitment to phasing out coal, but with no real details.
Perhaps none of this should surprise us. After all the forerunner of the G7 was set up in the mid-1970s as a sort of coup against a more democratic and equal world order. The first summit – then just the six most powerful governments in the world – took place in 1975 just outside Paris. Those leaders met to discuss the threat to their control of world energy markets from Middle Eastern suppliers who had turned off the oil taps, and how to deal with their former colonies who were demanding economic liberation from the Western-controlled international economy. Working as part of the non-aligned movement, these southern countries used the UN to demand a more democratic global economy in which big business and big finance would be constrained, producers of commodities would get a fairer share of global income, and important technologies would be shared for the benefit of all.
The G6 summit was a counterattack on this project for a more just world. The UN’s refusal to embed the interests of the richest meant, in the view of the G6, that it had to be marginalised. Strategic economic decisions were moved to the closed rooms of a privileged political class.
The G7 (or sometimes G8 when joined by Russia) remained a forum to set the rule of the global economy ever since. At times, it was a body that could dole out enough charity to maintain the status quo. In 2005, the G8 in Scotland, overseen by Gordon Brown, saw large-scale debt cancellation packages and promises to ramp-up foreign aid budgets, though it did nothing to change the direction of a global economy that was already heading towards the biggest crash since the 1920s.
In 2021, the G7’s pitiful donations and vague promises would not convince anyone that they have the answers to the world’s problems. True, there was some movement, again driven by the US, on setting a global corporate minimum tax rate. But this is the product of campaigning both within the US and around the world over many years. What the G7 endorsed was a very low corporate tax rate, with countries like the UK scrambling to exempt bits of their economy from the tax rules altogether.
No, the real lesson of this G7 is that we should have no illusions that the world’s leading powers are capable of sorting out the fundamental problems we now confront. They are not even able to hide behind an impressive-sounding set of funding pledges. It is long past time that this outdated, neo-colonial piece of global governance was abandoned. This group of governments is quick to proclaim their democratic credentials, so let us demand they sit down with the poorest governments, not as donors but as equals, and subject themselves to truly international decision-making.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.