* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
At global summits, I would spend hours pressuring leaders to act on poverty, climate, and justice. Now I know they're a waste of time
Kumi Naidoo is a South African human rights and environmental activist and former international executive director of Greenpeace International and Secretary General of Amnesty International. He is currently a Global Ambassador for Africans Rising for Justice, Peace & Dignity, and a special advisor to the Green Economy Coalition
Today, in a high-security hotel in Cornwall, the leaders of seven wealthy countries are gathering for the first G7 summit since COVID turned the planet upside down.
As the Secretary General of CIVICUS, Director of Greenpeace International and then Amnesty International, I’ve been to many of these behind-closed-doors events over the years – World Bank meetings, UN summits, Davos, and G7s, G8s, G20s.
With other activists I would spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars trying to pressure these decisionmakers into action on poverty, climate, and justice.
And now I know – they’re a waste of time.
In 2005, as chair of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, I was part of a huge international campaign, involving thousands of activists from around the world, to pressure the G8 leadership to act on debt cancellation, trade justice, and climate change.
We worked so hard, so creatively; we had concerts, celebrities, media coverage, a crescendo of public pressure.
The people roared… the G8 whispered.
Despite all our efforts, all we got was a handful of rehashed aid commitments deferred five years into the future, a partial cancellation of debt with draconian IMF strings attached, and a promise to achieve universal access to anti-HIV drugs in Africa by 2010.
Needless to say, the promise was not kept in its entirety.
And that experience was repeated again and again over the years. Every single summit since 2005 has promised to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies – including a 2015 promise to kill them entirely by 2025.
Has this happened? No.
All G7 nations have increased government support for oil and gas exploration, and together spend +$100bn a year on fossil fuel subsidies.
This year’s much-hyped announcement that the G7 will stop funding coal would have been fantastic if it had happened ten years ago; today it’s the absolute bare minimum. And without any enforcement mechanism, these warm words are nothing but hot air.
In 2008, I chaired a G8 side-event, bringing global civil society leaders together with Vladimir Putin – a chance, we thought, to speak some uncomfortable truths to power.
We didn’t mince our words, but Putin merely smiled through our criticisms, asked us to pose for a photo, and then immediately issued it to the media, 100 of whom ambushed us as we stepped out of the meeting.
Putin’s approach is broadly that of the G7 as a whole: show openness to engage without delivering anything of substance, sprinkle a few crumbs of change while blocking systemic transformation.
I wish I’d realised it earlier. After all, it’s crazy to think that the leaders of a handful of (admittedly rich) countries can set the course of global policy. The G7 represents barely 10% of the global population. It excludes China, India, South Korea, Russia, and the whole of Africa, Latin America, Central Asia and many more countries.
How will we achieve global action if we exclude most of the people on the planet? So what should we do instead?
After decades trying to corral and cajole world leaders, I now know that when it comes to social and environmental justice, the real power comes from below. In the US, the Green New Deal – the cornerstone of Joe Biden’s environmental plan – was born when young activists from the Sunrise Movement occupied the offices of the US Congress, winning Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to their cause.
In the UK, the wave of climate protests in 2019 convinced Parliament to declare a climate emergency and pushed Theresa May to adopt a 2050 net-zero pledge. Across Europe, school climate strikes have inspired resurgent Green movements, achieving unprecedented political power. In Germany, Greens may even be propelled into government.
In all these cases, people have mobilised and demanded change. And belatedly governments have started to listen.
If this G7 does accomplish anything real, it won’t be because the suits in the room spontaneously decided to do the right thing – it will be because they were compelled to act by the pressure of campaigners, organisers, activists, and voters whose demands for change are no longer possible to ignore.
That’s why I’m not bothering with the G7 anymore.
I’ve realised that it’s much more effective to go where the real power is – in communities, ordinary people, and voters.
When we focus on the people and the power that they have – through protest, boycotts, activism and engagement – that’s when we get things done.