I arrived in Toronto yesterday to cover the G8 and G20 Summits with civil society representatives from around the world. The streets of downtown Toronto are empty-the locals have fled, businesses have closed and boarded up their windows, employees are working from home, and my taxi driver told me he waited three hours to pick up a fare. There are police on most corners, more arriving in buses and motorcades, and fences have been erected around the area. The world leaders are arriving, but are out of sight.
Those of us representing civil society groups have been assigned to work in the “Alternative Media Center” which is across the street from The International Media Center, the “real” media center, separated by a busy street, more high fences, and concrete barricades. This means we have little or no access to international media outlets. Many of us who are activists and advocates pride ourselves on being a bit alternative, but in this case the Alternative Media Center is the Canadian government’s inelegant solution to concerns that civil society representatives from a broad range of issues would generate negative media coverage of G8 and G20 and their failure to meet past commitments. We are receiving the live news feed from the G8 meeting but there are no speakers so we are huddling around the televisions-the leaders need to speak up, literally and figuratively. Apparently this isn’t the norm. “NGOs are profoundly disappointed with the tone the Canadian government has set by barring NGOs and civil society from the international media center for the first time in recent history,” wrote David Olson on Blog 4 Global Health. “In both L’Aquila, Italy and Pittsburgh last year, NGOs and media shared the same media center in a way that was mutually beneficial for both parties.”
Will the situation in the streets and where we work prove to be a metaphor for the next few days? Civil society is here but we don’t have a place at the G8 or G20 table and are limited in our ability to carry the demands of the world’s poor to the world leaders, and to the media. The world leaders are here but will they hide from the commitments they made to health at the Gleneagles Summit in 2005 and from making concrete new commitments to save the lives of women and children and address poverty globally? Will the G8 leaders commit to accountability mechanisms that are as strong as armed guards and high fences outside? A mechanism that would allow us to track progress on G8 commitments and to hold governments to actually fulfilling the promises they make?
Everyone is watching and waiting in the city today, wondering if there will be violence or if there will be Head of State sightings as motorcades roll past. Similarly, we are watching and waiting to learn what the G8 governments will commit to do to address the signature initiative of this G8, The Muskoka Initiative for maternal and child Health. The G8 must make a collective commitment to new resources for maternal, newborn and child health including reproductive health. This commitment must include access to integrated and cost-effective interventions which have been proven to save lives. It is time for the G8 to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, and every newborn and child is healthy. This morning, the Alternative Media Center was evacuated due to a bomb scare. I hope that means that some groups realize the voices in this building do have power, and that we will continue working to make our voices ant he voices of all of those we represent heard. We also hear the streets won’t be empty for long. Let’s hope that as the protestors flood the streets tomorrow, the G8 and G20 leaders will unleash a similarly powerful flow of real commitments to saving the lives of women and children. Soon the streets won’t be empty, and the promises must not be either.