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Focus or die: The G8 fights for survival Add to ...

Stephen Harper's Muskoka G8 summit will be a make-or-break chance to show the old club deserves to survive. It will be a steep, uphill battle.

If the G8 can act cohesively on international security issues, summon a new level of credibility instead of making scattered and oft-ignored promises, and show it can help the world - such as advancing the fight against maternal and child deaths - it might earn a future.

But waiting in the wings is a bigger group, the G20, that looks more like the world we now live in, and has already taken precedence in dealing with global economics. Its members are eyeing big parts of what's left of the G8's agenda - notably development and aid - and are expecting to take them over. If that happens, who will want a billion-dollar G8 summit?

Mr. Harper isn't cheering on the G8's demise. Though his predecessor, Paul Martin, saw the group's decline as inevitable and promoted the G20 to seal Canada's place at the next table, Mr. Harper isn't eager to dilute Canada's membership, or in particular the face time with the U.S. president that comes with membership in the exclusive club.

But everyone wants face time with the U.S. President, and the Obama administration has summit fatigue. France is expected to combine G8 and G20 summits next year, but the United States might seal the G8's demise when it's scheduled to play host in 2012.

"I think we're going through a transition period. And it's far more awkward than we imagined," said Andrew Cooper, a veteran summit analyst and distinguished fellow at the Canadian Centre for Governance Innovation.

It's a potentially ignoble end to the grand old club that started small and expanded until it seemed to collapse under its own weight, not to mention a burden it could no longer bear.

It began as the G5 in France's Chateau Rambouillet in 1975 for informal chats about a problem sparked by the oil crisis: balancing economic flows between borrowers (the U.S.) and lenders (then West Germany.) By the time financial crisis struck in 2008, China, the new dominant lender, wasn't at the table of the expanded G8 and nor were other rising economies.

In the meantime, though, the G8 - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States and Canada - had become all manner of things, hammering out formal communiqués on global hot spots, security, crime, the environment and big pledges of development aid, which weren't always honoured.

Mr. Harper hopes to focus the G8 "on its strengths, and where it can make a real, tangible difference in development and international security," the PM's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, said Friday.

The G20 is broader, but the smaller group of "like-minded" countries can work together on international-security issues, Mr. Harper argued at the close of last September's G20 summit in Pittsburgh, when the G8 lost its economic mandate. It's members no longer dominate the world's economy, but they donate the most aid dollars, he argued.

And he picked a cause: reducing the deaths of mothers and young children in poorer nations. There was obvious need: Up to 500,000 women in developing countries die of pregnancy-related causes each year and nine million children under five perish.

Progress on the maternal- and child-health targets set by the UN in its Millenium Goals remains painfully slow. A major G8 push could provide momentum for a UN conference that will review those goals in September. The optimists see a chance for the G8 to be a leader.

"If we can look back in five years and say this G8 was what started the momentum to addressing this, it will have been a historic accomplishment," said Rosemary McCarney, president of the development-aid organization Plan Canada.

But recession and fiscal deficits have put a squeeze on aid budgets. Canada has offered $1-billion over five years; Britain offered a similar sum, and the United States almost twice as much. But it remains to be seen how much other G8 members will kick in.

Non-G8 countries, and private foundations such as the Gates Foundation, have been invited into the so-called Muskoka initiative, to give it extra heft. That suggests that the G8 isn't necessarily the forum that has to steer such plans, Mr. Cooper said.

The G8 has a reputation for making many promises and meeting only some. It released an accountability report ahead of the summit showing it delivered only half of its 2005 commitment to double aid to Africa, for example. There's no hope that many strapped G8 countries will catch up on those commitments, nor is it clear how willing the members are to track pledges in the future.

The G20 is eyeing the development role. The next host, South Korea, wants to put development issues firmly on the agenda for its November summit. And it symbolizes the G20's ascendancy: In 50 years, South Korea moved from aid recipient to aid donor. And at some point, the G8 nations will have an interest in seeing big, emerging economies, such as India and China, play a bigger role in development in poor countries - if they will.

If the G20 does take over development, will the G8 have enough to do? It may still see eye-to-eye on security issues - except, sometimes, Russia - but its ability to take action is limited. On Saturday, G8 leaders will make statements on Iran, North Korea and the Middle East, but all will be rehashes. Will leaders be convened to summits just to touch base on those?

As delegations prepare for the twin Canadian summits this week, officials from several countries, including G8 members, predicted the G20 will, piece-by-piece but soon, take over the G8's agenda.

Its future then? Perhaps as a caucus that holds a dinner before G20 summits - if that doesn't upset emerging nations. Mr. Harper's hope that the G8 can prove its worth is running out, as the bigger world races to pass.

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