G-7 Research Group 'speaking truth to power' at Ise-Shima summit

by Dave Hueston


With a multitude of complex issues being tackled by the Group of Seven nations, it is difficult if not impossible to ensure that the agenda being discussed at the two-day talks will actually bear fruit.

But the G-7 Research Group, a global network of scholars, students, and professionals led by professor John Kirton, 68, at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, has its finger on the pulse, serving as arguably the world’s preeminent independent source for understanding the inner workings of the G-7.

The group was founded at the University of Toronto in 1988, when the city served as the host of the G-7 summit, Kirton said.

One of its major tasks is holding the feet of the richest nations in the industrialized world to the fire, so to speak; to ascertain whether or not the G-7 countries are following through with their summit commitments.

“We’ve organized the team to cover all of the major issues, from the economy, climate change, gender, and very importantly health,” Kirton said in a recent interview.

“Once the communiques come out, we’ll identify, for example, the commitments; how many precise, future-oriented, politically-binding collective commitments they made. So we can say, it’s not just all talk. They actually did agree to do things, and then from that we identify the priority commitments and start our compliance assessment for next year,” he said.

At the Ise-Shima summit that concluded Friday in Mie Prefecture, the G-7 agenda included global economy and trade; foreign policy, particularly in relationship to the Syrian refugee crisis in the Middle East; climate change and energy; and issues dealing with sustainable development and infrastructure in emerging economies.

There are stickier issues such as the G-7’s tough declaration in response to tensions being raised by the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, a veiled criticism of Beijing’s unilateral claims to disputed islands and atolls, and addressing North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons ambitions.

Whatever the issues on the table, the G-7 Research Group takes a serious interest. “We assist the world’s media to understand what’s going on. We study this stuff 24/7, 365 days a year. So we know about the background, the dynamics that go into the grand climax, which is the summit itself.”

Kirton said his team of over 20 researchers at the Ise-Shima summit, the majority of whom are female, are organized to cover all of the participant countries — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States — as well as the European Union.

“We recognized that the summit was an important center of global governance, so we continued to explore it and have gone to each summit since 1988 through to Ise-Shima now,” Kirton said.

According to the group’s G-7 briefing published for the Ise-Shima summit, the average rate of compliance to summit commitments for all issues and countries was 76 percent between 1975, when the G-7 summits began, and 2014.

The report adds that compliance originally peaked at 86 percent in 1992 and 1994 after being as low as 62 percent from 1975 to 1996 among the seven original countries (excluding Russia and the European Union). It later reached a record high of 87 percent at the Okinawa summit in 2000. Since 2003, the average has fluctuated between 71 percent and 83 percent, showing little variation since 2011.

Generally speaking, compliance on macroeconomic and social policies has seen a higher percentage (86 percent) while, not surprisingly, the lowest average (64 percent) has been on country’s trade commitments. Compliance has been rising since 1996, but it depends on the country and the issue, the report said. The research group has monitored the outcomes of 451 commitments since 1975.

Caroline Bracht, 30, a senior researcher with the group, who conducted the study, has written about compliance, specifically in relation to development, climate change, and energy commitments.

She said after quitting a job in corporate planning that she found unfulfilling, she went back to school to take a course in development assistance overseas. Bracht leads the group’s work on education, social policy, health and compliance.

“I have family from Colombia, so I went to visit and while staying with my aunt she taught me numerous things. Every time I would go to the garbage she would say, ‘What are you throwing out?’ And quite often she could use it. So it made me question how I can go overseas and implement a solution when I don’t know the cultural context,” Bracht said.

“Being an educated female from North America, I thought, what is my role? Facilitating accessibility, so that politicians and policymakers can hear perspectives from a variety of different people. Who makes the decisions, and why, and once they allocate money toward something, where does it go and how does it actually get delivered?”

Kirton’s pet issue, he said, is definitely climate change. But he is also attuned to the dangers presented by the proliferation of nuclear weapons as one of the “two issues that could conceivably end life on the planet.”

“We know that the Paris (2015 COP21 conference) Agreement of the U.N. was inadequate; we know that climate change is happening more quickly than what was assumed even last December. So this is the chance for the leaders of the most powerful democratic countries in the world to take big, bold decisions to save us from the coming catastrophe.”

Above all, the G-7 Research Group, Kirton said, is about effecting real change by challenging the status quo.

“We speak truth to power, power listens, and we know that from the way they react to our compliance reports.”

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