As photo ops go, it doesn’t get much better. A beautiful Rome morning. The ruins of Nero’s palace on the horizon. A backdrop of leaping flames augmented by fire breathers. And the heads of the G8 countries cavorting about in togas, fiddling while Africa burns.
Oxfam’s Big Heads made their debut appearance Monday, stoking the pressure on G8 leaders to live up to their commitments on aid, on Africa, on women and children, and on hunger – and to make a strong commitment to action on climate change.
The paparazzi loved it – as Berlusconi fiddled, Obama chummed around with Harper and Brown, Sarkozy fed grapes to Merkel and the Japanese and Russian leaders toasted each other’s health. Even the tourists arriving at the Circus Maximus by the busload were thrilled to catch this special moment for their scrapbooks.
The frenzy had a Fellini-esque quality, with photographers and choreographers barking orders and counting down to one more burst of flame. Having been up most of the night putting the finishing touches to the costumes and then again at dawn to stage the tableau, Victoria Harnett from our Toronto office and a raft of keen Italian volunteers left nothing to chance in ensuring the success of the event.
Careful to ensure my head didn’t fall off, I joined in the fun of the spectacle. But at the same time I was very clear the real-life drama lived by more than a billion people provides a deadly serious backdrop to the stunt. We urgently need decisive action to boost and target aid, to curb rising temperatures and to get serious about the scale of support developing countries need to adapt to climate change. Countries in the global South have been devastated by the world-wide economic meltdown, increasing pressure on health and education, water and sanitation. As a result, the numbers of women dying in childbirth, children dying of preventable diseases and girls missing out on schooling continue at obscene levels. Meanwhile the plight of small farmers – most of whom are women – grows more acute each day.
Adding to the economic crisis, climate crisis and food crisis is a crisis of leadership. A number of the G8 leaders are shaky on the home front and few appear to be arriving in Rome with a clear mission or mandate. As a result, expectations are low at a time when needs are at their highest.
Oxfam, working with our partners, allies and supporters world-wide, has been pressing G8 leaders for months to demonstrate they have the vision and the commitment to take the bold action required to avert millions of needless deaths – action of the scale of the bank bailouts.
On the eve of the summit, it all comes down to this. If leaders won’t lead in the interests of their citizens then the legitimacy of the whole political system – and the future of the planet – is in jeopardy.
In the coming days we’ll be watching – and working – to see that there is real progress made at this year’s summit and that the leaders will stop fiddling while Rome burns.