The Group of 7 summit in Germany ended last week with the leaders of the world’s wealthiest countries pledging to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.
They agreed on short-term measures such as a ban on Russian gold imports and discussed what the host of the meeting, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, called a “Marshall plan” for Ukraine, invoking the vast reconstruction of Europe after the Second World War. It will be a “task for generations,” Mr. Scholz said.
There is no doubt that Ukraine should receive this help. But the leaders of the Group of 7 are missing the big picture. And it’s terrifying. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, world food prices were near record highs. But the ripple effects of war now threaten to cause hunger and suffering on an enormous scale.
In addition to food prices, crude oil has recently topped $120 a barrel, fertilizer costs have skyrocketed, and interest rates have soared. Add to that extreme weather conditions, unsustainable agricultural practices, high debt in many countries, the lingering effects of the pandemic and other violent conflicts, and more than a billion people are at risk from what the Nations United called it a “perfect storm” of difficulties.
And yet, the members of the Group of 7 have not responded with the level of commitment required to avert a human catastrophe.
The main announcement from the summit was $4.5 billion for food security – a fraction of the $22.2 billion the World Food Program needs now, and a tiny pledge for a bloc that accounts for around 45% of the World GDP.
The world needs a Marshall Plan. He got a bandage.
The disconnect from the rich countries was evident in the format of the Group of 7 summit, which was held at a luxury resort and spa nestled in the Bavarian Alps. The leaders of Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal and South Africa have been invited to discuss issues such as food, health and climate, but only 90 minutes of the three-day meeting were devoted to these concerns.
By treating global food, energy and debt pressures as secondary to the war in Ukraine, the Group of 7 has missed a golden opportunity to help the world’s hungry and refute Vladimir Putin’s narrative about the liberal world order as an exhausted force that does not care about the poor.
Rich countries may already be losing this battle for hearts and minds.
Three months ago, the Western world rallied global support for a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with 141 countries voting in favour. But even then, China, India and half of Africa abstained. As the war progressed, the West found it harder to rally the world, with later resolutions attracting fewer votes, in part for fear that further measures to punish Mr Putin would worsen economic volatility world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been feted in the West, addressing the US Congress and several European parliaments. But when he addressed the African Union via video in June, only four of its 55 leaders followed him live.
This does not necessarily mean support for the Russian invasion – a number of African countries fear the territorial ambitions of their own more powerful neighbours. Nor does it mean a unified position. The concerns in the countries of the South are diverse and complex. They include fear of being drawn into a new Cold War, anger at the failure of the developed world to deliver on its promises of vaccines, debt relief or climate finance, as well as the perceived Western double standard in calling for global action on the war in Ukraine while de – prioritizing the suffering of other countries.
But the levers of the same Western market-oriented system that brings opprobrium in the Global South could provide solutions that developing countries desperately need. Driven by supply fears, at least 23 countries have imposed bans on food exports, further driving up prices. The Group of 7 called on nations to avoid overstocking of food. But he could also have pledged to make a concerted effort at the World Trade Organization for measures to keep export markets open.
It’s not just about food shortages. Sixty percent of low-income countries are struggling with debt. Again, the Group of 7 leaders could have announced plans to persuade the International Monetary Fund to suspend debt repayments, remove borrowing limits and accelerate new lending to help countries buy imported food and energy.
Members of the Group of 7 have agreed to explore possible price caps on Russian oil and gas to ease inflationary pressures and limit Putin’s ability to finance the war. This effort is likely to run into a host of political and technical difficulties, but is worth exploring, as well as expanding supply from other sources.
Of course, the most critical long-term energy step is the transition to renewable sources. Climate change affects food security because changes in weather and soil can limit a country’s ability to grow crops. The war in Ukraine has also laid bare the security risks of reliance on fossil fuels, giving leaders like Mr Putin leverage.
The energy transition plans of one of the West’s current skeptics, South Africa, indicate the scale of the challenge. Funding will come from a mix of public and private capital. But switching from coal to renewables like solar, wind and hydropower will cost some $250 billion over the next three decades, or about 3% of South Africa’s GDP.
This public-private model could be replicated in other major economies such as India, Indonesia and Vietnam. But that means raising money on the scale of the Marshall Plan, in which the United States contributed about 2% of its GDP to help rebuild Europe.
Western countries and institutions must muster the same political will to show that they can react dynamically to help countries at risk and to prove that the international liberal order remains a global force for good. The Group of 7 members missed an opportunity in Germany. But it’s not too late.
Mark Malloch-Brown (@malloch_brown) is president of the Open Society Foundations, the world’s largest private funder of human rights groups. He is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations.
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