The G8 was originally set up in 1975 as the G6 (France, United States, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan) in response to the need of the heads of state and of government of the major industrialised democracies for an informal discussion forum. Its initial objective was to confront the economic crises of the mid-1970s in an open and constructive spirit, particularly oil price shocks and the reform of the international monetary system following the end of the Bretton Woods system and replacement of the gold standard with a floating exchange rate. The first Summit was convened on the initiative of the French government and was held at Rambouillet, near Paris. The format was subsequently enlarged with Canada’s entry in 1977 and Russia’s participation at the 1994 Naples Summit.
The G8 is not an international organisation, but a framework for informal high-level meetings that has gained institutional status over the years. The summits of heads of state and government, the agendas of which initially focused on economic and financial issues, are now underpinned by ministerial meetings on foreign affairs, the environment, development, labour, domestic affairs, justice, scientific research and agriculture, along with a large number of working groups tasked with examining topics ranging from health to development to nuclear energy. Finance ministers continue to meet in a G7 format, retaining their own specific authority regarding economic/financial matters.
As a consequence of a growing number of concerns, and of G8 meeting levels, the annual head of state and government summit declarations have become increasingly comprehensive. Although not legally binding, these declarations are highly significant since they constitute political commitments at the highest level and indicate the stances of the major industrialised democracies on key focus areas such as finance, development, peace and the environment.
Combined with 1990s capital market liberalisation, and the resulting capital-flow increases, the rise of emerging economies and the complexity of a series of new challenges ranging from climate change to development policy, have led the G8 to concentrate on fostering dialogue with developing countries, especially those most severely poverty-stricken of Africa. A two-year strengthened dialogue was launched with the main emerging economies at the Heiligendamm Summit in 2007 on issues concerning investments, energy, innovation and development (HDP - Heiligendamm Dialogue Process), which will conclude in 2009 under the Italian Presidency.
The G8 has been sponsoring structured dialogue on climate change with emerging countries through initiatives such as the Gleneagles Dialogue (British Presidency 2005) and the Major Economies Meeting (MEM). This latter was created in 2007 to contribute to the successful outcome of climate change negotiations in the wider forum of the United Nations by establishing a context for smaller scale but sufficiently representative encounter between those emerging and developed economies most responsible for greenhouse gases emissions. A total of 16 countries attend the MEMs (the G8 members, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia).
Among the highest-impact measures adopted during G8 Summits, deserving of mention is the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria launched at the 2001 Genoa Summit, which has channelled approximately 6 billion dollars into more than 500 projects in 136 countries over the past 7 years and, according to the most reliable estimates, has saved 2 million human lives. With 80 per cent of its financing coming from the G8, the Fund uses an innovative cooperation model based on a public/private partnership that draws upon the substantial input of the civil society, local communities and multilateral institutions, and recently received refinancing of approximately 10 billion dollars for the 2008-2010 period.
The G8’s first thirty years of experience have shown that a key element in its success has been an informal nature that welcomes an open comparison of positions by countries with shared values and levels of development. That auspicious intuition that led to its launch in the mid-1970s remains relevant today in the face of the fresh challenges of globalisation.