G7 Countdown: How civil society groups hope to get through to leaders

Do grassroots concerns ever catch the ear of G7 members, in particular that of the host country? With meetings already underway ahead of the Quebec summit, Celine Cooper looks at the behind-the-scenes efforts to influence the group’s agenda. 

By: /
March 28, 2018
G7 country leaders gather as they attend the G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy, on May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

In June, the region of Charlevoix, Quebec will play host to the 44th annual Group of Seven (G7) Summit, bringing together member countries Canada, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. This will be the sixth leaders’ gathering hosted by Canada, and the second held in Quebec.

While much of the world’s attention will be focused on the summit itself, the hard work happens early, largely away from the public eye. Meetings in advance of the Canadian summit have been taking place now for a few months — the first of four ministerial meetings is being held this week in Montreal.

As they do with each host, civil society groups hoping to influence the G7 agenda are now looking to Canada to set the tone and establish spaces for their inclusion and participation. This influence is critical in bringing leaders of the most powerful and prosperous governments closer to the grassroots and various parts of global society, and in advocating for meaningful commitments to be made at the leaders’ summit.  

But how does this actually happen? How might Canada’s brokering of the relationship with civil society shape the 2018 G7 commitments and outcomes? What kind of priorities, challenges and opportunities are at play for civil society groups in Canada already working behind the scenes on the road to Charlevoix?

An evolving relationship

The G7 is an informal, consensus-based global forum. It has a rotating presidency, no permanent secretariat or set agenda, and all members must work together to find common ground on commitments.

This loose structure has not always lent itself to a clear relationship with civil society groups, and for many years there wasn’t any significant interaction between G7 and civil society organizations.

Over time, this relationship has evolved. Many G7 host countries have begun to acknowledge the role of — and formalize spaces for — civil society and NGO engagement in their meetings, media-related events and the summit itself.

At the Okinawa Summit in 2000, Japan became the first G7 host nation to officially establish a space for civil society and NGO engagement in the G7 process. The first G7 engagement group — the Civil7, or C7 — was created that year, and other G7 engagement groups, including the Business7, ThinkTank7, Women7 and Youth7, were created in the years that followed.

The G7 Task Force, an informal grouping of civil society organizations from around the world, has been operating under various names since 2004. In 2017, it prepared the C7 recommendations for the G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy. The Task Force is comprised of six working groups: food security and nutrition; health; climate and energy; women’s empowerment and gender; education; and peace and security. Each has developed its own platform paper with specific asks for the Canadian government to tackle with other G7 leaders this year. There are also two sub-groups: development and financing, and accountability.

The Task Force does not take policy positions. It doesn’t have a big public or media presence. Instead, its role is to act as a hub for NGO members and groups working on G7 advocacy, and to amplify their work.

“We’re really just a collection of groups with an interest in working together, collaborating and sharing our own particular G7 campaigning strategies and policy asks with a wider group,” says Kel Currah, who facilitates the Task Force from Canada. “We have 360 individual members and 170 organizations as members, so it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of the groups that are working on the G7.”

Every year, Task Force members must set out a targeted approach for advocacy and lobbying under a given G7 presidency.

“Because it’s up to the host country to decide on the level of engagement they’re going to have with civil society each year,” says Currah, “I have a saying: you become who you lobby.”

Amanda Sussman of Plan International echoed this approach: “We base our strategy on a political analysis of the moment, and ask: where is a government at? What are the issues facing global gridlock that the G7 could move?”

In December, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada’s priorities at the G7 would be framed by five key themes. One in particular — advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment — has been given a major signal boost. Canada has established the first ever G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council, made up of high profile, international leaders. It is mandated to ensure that all themes, activities and outcomes of Canada’s G7 presidency are in line with gender equality and gender-based analysis. Task Force members have picked up the cue, and have used the government’s focus on women as a strong lens through which to frame their policy papers and G7 asks. 

Currah expects that the ministerials (the key policy meetings leading up to the summit) may carry more weight this year than usual. In particular, the meetings help to iron out any disagreements over language in any final documentation or declarations that may be presented later. “We hear that the Canadian government may be thinking of not having the usual communiqué but more declarations around areas of agreement in the chairman summary,” she says.

The Canadian outcome remains to be seen. For now, there is a sense that Canada is committed to civil society dialogue. 

It has been generally acknowledged that Peter Boehm, Canada’s G7 ‘sherpa,’ and his team are working hard to foster a two-way dialogue between civil society groups and G7 partners.

 In his decade of experience doing G7 advocacy work, John Ruthrauff, director of the Centre for Democratic Education, notes that meetings between civil society and the G7 sherpas typically last between half an hour to an hour. At the first such meeting in Kitchener back in January, they were given a full two hours. That’s never happened before, he says. “Canada deserves to be cited for that.”

Getting through to leaders

Civil society groups wanting to influence the G7 agenda must be strategic, collaborative, nimble and concise. "The summit itself is not actually a lobbying opportunity," Ruthrauff explained. “Virtually all the decisions are made well in advance.”

Ruthrauff has engaged in advocacy work at 10 G7 summits with InterAction, a US-based alliance of international NGOs. 

“If you want to influence the agenda you have to begin a year before the host country takes the presidency,” he continued. “With parliaments and Congress, or even the UN, you do advocacy right up to the vote because that makes a big difference. NGOS aren’t used to starting six, eight or even 10 months before the actual event. We’ve gotten better at it, but it’s taken a while.”

“The idea is to get the papers, material and policy briefs to the G7 sherpas at least two or three weeks before the second sherpa meeting.”

For civil society groups this year, that would have been mid-February. The second sherpa meeting took place from March 7 to 8 in Victoria, B.C.

Oh, and ditch the wordy consensus statements and laundry lists of requests, Ruthrauff says. Documents need to be concrete and specific. 

“If your papers are very long, they don’t get read," insists Ruthrauff. “In the US, we’ve shrunk each policy brief down to 500 words, and we limit it to three or four recommendations, the ones that we think they can take action on.” 

There’s a difference between doing advocacy broadly and lobbying on specific issues, he explains.

The idea for civil society groups in terms of the summit is to focus on what’s feasible and possible. “Don’t go in with the perfect request that would result in the best perfect policy on something. Address what you think they can do.”

Holding G7 members to account on commitments

While it’s fairly easy to track G7 commitments, there is less information when it comes to follow through. 

“If you see the communiqués, they have great statements,” explains Ruthrauff. “But they have no action plan, no benchmarks and no accountability. This can happen year after year. Our strategy [at InterAction] was to say, OK, let’s look at what they’ve agreed to in the past, and then try and hold them accountable to it. We can say we’re pleased you did X, Y, Z, and now we’d like you to publish an action plan with benchmarks and dates so that we know how you’re going to implement that.”

InterAction has developed a series of ‘scorecards’ that monitor progress by tracking the recommendations US groups have made alongside G7 commitments. The scorecards incorporate quotes from different communiqués and ministerial statements. In Canada, the G7/G20 Research Centre at the University of Toronto is the only external accountability tracking system, and it has yearly compliance reports.  

The Task Force, however, is entirely self-funded and doesn’t have capacity to do tracking and accountability work, says Currah. “I think it would be really useful to do a research project to see what the impact of civil society on G7 commitments is. Return on investment, if you like. We do spend a lot of time on the G7. However, in terms of funding from foundations, there’s not much interest.” 

A test for 2018: Climate action

Given the limited resources of most NGOs, is all the time and energy spent on the G7 worth it? Amanda Sussman of Plan International acknowledges some criticism among civil society around the idea of the G7 as a representative political body. Unlike the G20, many feel that it doesn’t capture the diversity within the global community. It’s a valid concern, she notes. But over the years public interest in the G7 has increased and civil society working within its sphere has become better organized.

“The G7 offers up a unique opportunity to leverage short-term political attention and focus it towards the world’s most neglected issues,” she says. 

Take climate, for instance.

Catherine Abreu is with Climate Action Network. As part of the Task Force, her organization is convening the climate and energy working group this year. Her group rolled up their sleeves and got to work in November, preparing a policy brief with seven key priority areas touching on issues including emissions reduction, gender equality and the transition toward a clean economy. On top of this, Abreu hopes to see a public affirmation that at least six of the seven nations are still fully behind the Paris Agreement. 

Last year’s 2017 G7 meeting in Taormina was marked by tension and disagreement between the United States and the other members, notably on issues of climate and trade

It was, of course, Donald Trump’s first full international summit as president of the US. While Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Britain and Japan re-confirmed their commitment to the international 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Trump stood alone. He refused to honour the US’ earlier commitment and declined to sign onto a joint statement supporting the deal. The tensions led some observers to remark that the 2017 leaders’ meeting looked less like a G7 and more like a “G6 versus Donald Trump.”

An affirmation of the Paris Agreement would signal an overwhelming consensus in regard to global climate commitments. 

“This is important because the G7 and G20 set macroeconomic trends. They set the tone, and give the affirmative signal to governments, investors and businesses,” explains Abreu. It also establishes expectations among global and domestic civil society that can then be communicated to government and government ministries through the G7.

On climate, Trump has left the door open to the US re-entering the Paris emissions deal, but on its own terms. 

“That sets this year up for some interesting and tense conversations around climate and energy,” says Abreu. “We know that Canada has said vocally that they are committed to consensus, and that they see the G7 as a consensus body.”

The energy and environment ministerial meeting happens in October, after the summit itself.

Given the current threats to multilateralism and retreats to insular nationalism, it makes sense that Canada would want to maintain a consensus base and affirm the kind of multilateral collaboration that the G7 should nurture, she says.

“But it will be tricky for Canada to reflect leadership rhetoric around climate in terms of outcomes of G7,” says Abreu. “As civil society groups, we’re looking out for ways in which Canada will restore and affirm multilateral processes while staying true to its strong leadership on climate.”