G8 countries have been tussling over two issues that will decide the group's future: its credibility and its ambition.
In the behind-the-scenes preparations for the summit, there was a battle about whether G8 countries will each be held accountable for the big-money summit promises they've made in the past.
No wonder Canadian officials have had a hard time getting the same countries who didn't want to be named and shamed - Italy and Germany - to pony up money for a new maternal-health initiative.
The maternal-health initiative is Stephen Harper's G8 centrepiece. But it's been a slog to get countries that are tightening their foreign-aid budgets, such as Italy, Germany, and Japan, to commit big sums. Three countries from outside the G8 who are willing - Norway, New Zealand, and the Netherlands - have been brought in to set an example.
At this late date, a week from the leaders' summit in Muskoka, the details on the hallmark summit initiative would normally be agreed upon. But the G8's draft communiqué and its annex on maternal health still has lots of blank spaces, including where the sums should be.
Canada has proposed a commitment of between $1-billion and $1.4-billion over five years. Britain has offered a comparable sum, £1-billion, or about $1.5-billion dollars. The U.S. is looking at about double those sums. France has promised to commit but wants to count some of its broader health funding toward the maternal-health initiative, and there's a debate about the rules. Russia, the "non-wealthy" country in the club, isn't really a player on aid.
But Japan, Germany, and especially Italy have so far been unwilling to commit large sums.
If the summit ends that way, Mr. Harper would be able to take credit for an outsized Canadian contribution, but the success will be mixed if other G8 countries don't sign up.
To move the initiative along, the three small countries who spend big on reducing maternal and child deaths in developing countries will be included in the G8 summit's list of donors. That was not only intended to make allies and gain pledges, but also to give bigger G8 countries a nudge: it might embarrass Italy, for example, if a country one-twelfth its size, Norway, pledged more.
Aid budgets are being squeezed by some countries that need to cut deficits, of course, but it's not much of an advertisement for the G8 if only half of its big players sign on to its headline initiatives, and others have to pinch hit.
Now that the broader G20 summit handles economics, the area of development initiatives, along with international security, were supposed to be where, according to leaders such as Mr. Harper, the club of rich countries in the G8 will prove its worth. If it can't, the broader G20 will take that over, too.
And as it struggles to find group ambition, it still has to fix its old credibility gap on past promises. Behind the scenes, there's been squabbling over whether members should report on how well they've lived up to old pledges.
The leaders are supposed to approve a G8 Accountability Report at the summit. But in pre-summit meetings the Germans and especially the Italians have fought the publication of details that spell out how well each country has done in meeting its G8-summit pledges.
They wanted a report that would describe only the G8's performance as a group, not the performance of each country - so the accountability report wouldn't hold any country accountable. It's not hard to see why: According to a recent report by the aid organization One, Germany delivered only 23 per cent of its 2005 promised to increase aid to Africa; Italy's went down, not up.
But that fight is over. It's now scheduled to be released this Sunday - and will include the annexes that detail each country's performance. That's a win for the Canadian hosts, and for the countries that sided with them - Britain, the United States, and France.
But even so, there's still negotiations between the two groups over whether the summit's final communiqué will state that G8 leaders will follow up on its recommendations - in other words, to do something about their un-kept promises - or just acknowledge that the report was done.
There is a Catch-22 in the report: Europeans countries made big ambitious pledges, and didn't meet them, North Americans made modest ones, and kept them. And as a group, they're still struggling to match ambition with credibility.