The G8 Religious Leaders Summit began this morning, but with three introductory addresses.

Dr Lloyd Axworthy runs the University of Winnipeg, but is a former Foreign Minister of Canada. He spoke about the need for religious leaders to have a common witness in matters of human concern (I think).

Justice Murray Sinclair has been chairing the recent Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission which wrestled with the historic abuse and injustices instigated against the indigenous (aboriginal) communities of Canada. He rooted our thinking in the more local (Canadian) experience of (a) state legal oppression of indigenous people and (b) the loss of credibility of churches for most indigenous people. Interestingly (and contentiously, given the language involved), he observed that the greatest oppressors of the indigenous communities are now what he called ‘fundamentalist aborigines’ – those who ‘converted’ away from their indigenous roots and now evangelise their fellows.

However, the third speaker was the most powerful and arresting. Senator Lt. General Romeo Dallaire (Retd) is famous for having been given command of UN forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In a serious, passionate and informed presentation, he questioned whether politicians are now offering leadership in the world or merely reacting to crises. He stated that leadership by crisis management does not offer leadership in shaping the future.

He cited George Bush’s ‘New World Order’ and changed it to a ‘New World Disorder’ in which the sheer complexity of a world undergoing technological (and other) revolution is being reacted to by politicians who are overwhelmed by panic and finding it difficult to live with ambiguity. For example, he wanted to know what were the criteria for deciding to send 400 UN troops to Rwanda in 1994 while allocating 67,000 to the former Yugoslavia: who set the priorities and according to which criteria?

The lack of an answer to that question represents the most serious challenge to the ability of politicians to lead: which world view (rooted in which assumptions and according to which moral base?) will be thought through and owned by those making decisions to shape the future rather than simply keep reacting to events/crises? Dallaire thinks that our political masters are waiting for citizens to give them the authority to lead.

This raises the most fundamental questions facing us all. It is not enough to make policy without doing the hard work of working through and owning the philosophical (or theological) assumptions/world view that will subsequently and consequently direct and shape specific policies that take a long-term view of the future and are not simply shaped to ensure electoral success in the short term.

Dallaire put it bluntly: are all human beings human or are others more human than others?

This was a very humane articulation of Justice Murray Sinclair’s conclusion that four fundamental questions need to be addressed by all peoples and communities:

  1. Where have we come from?
  2. Where do we go after here (that is, after death)?
  3. Why are we here (ethics)?
  4. Who am I / are we? (identity)

The implication offered here is that religious leaders might have to drive this sort of thinking in order to hold political leaders to a more informed account in a complex world that allows those political leaders little time for thinking, learning or reflecting before either reacting … or shaping the future.

These speakers were followed by Dr Andre Karamaga (General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches) – who asked for Africa to be partners in alleviation of poverty rather than simply recipients of others’ aid:

Don’t speak of doing it for us, but with us.

He was followed by Jim Wallis from Washington who stressed the need for a vision to drive politics and the rest of us. He noted that our faith traditions began not as institutions, but as movements – and that the difference is in the capacity of the latter for sacrifice. He called for religious leaders to “announce the impossible and then work to make it happen”.

And here lies the fundamental problem for conferences such as this one: despite the challenges by Dallaire and Wallis, responses from the delegates resorted to “telling the politicians that poverty is unacceptable”. I will be arguing later that statements like that need to be read through the eyes of those who will receive them – and I can’t see any politician responding with anything constructive. It is like being told that we must support human beings in staying alive: no one will disagree with the sentiment, but it doesn’t help the decision-makers to know any more clearly how this should be done in a complex world of competing priorities and expectations.

Sitting here, it is hard not to hear successive contributions as worthy recitations of what we all already know (for example, about environmental disasters, the power of capital and the global problems of blind materialism). If we are to make any impact, we will have to be sharper and more savvy than this about the intended audience and the language of our discourse.

I’m beginning to get superstitious. A soon as I leave the country the goals start going in in South Africa. Portugal have just banged seven past North Korea who will now have to go home and face the pleasure of their unenlightened dictator. I’ll still be away for England’s decider against Slovenia, so will just have to keep praying my latest prayers from Canada.

I can’t remember the last time I woke up to see seven goals go in during a World Cup. But there are lots of things I can’t remember. And I am clearly not alone in having rather limited powers of recall. Governments clearly have the same experience.

I arrived in Winnipeg with a colleague yesterday (or is it today?) afternoon and we got straight down to work. A tradition has grown up during the last five years whereby religious (usually Christian) leaders in the host country of the G8 summit also arrange a prior summit of world religious leaders. The purpose is basically (a) to bring the religious traditions together and offer a united voice in favour of the poor people of the world, (b) to offer a deeper/wider moral perspective on political, economic and social decisions by our political leaders, and (c) to remind the same leaders of the commitments they have made in the past.

The G8/G20 are meeting in Toronto, but the religious leaders are meeting in Winnipeg. Why not in the same place? Have you tried moving around the city where the G8/G20 meet? Anyway, Winnipeg has a history of religious diversity (and struggle) that makes it the right place to be – apart from the mosquitoes, that is…

On 9 June the Guardian reported that the draft G8 Summit communique had dropped any reference to the Gleneagles pledge to Africa – to double aid to the poorest countries by 2010. That would have amounted to an extra £17 billion ($25bn) each year as part of a £50bn increase in financial assistance. Last year’s summit in Italy concluded:

G8 countries reiterated their commitments, including those made at Gleneagles and more recently at the G20 London summit, to support African efforts towards promoting development good governance and achieving the millennium development goals [the UN targets for addressing world poverty by 2015].

At the Winnipeg summit, starting this evening, global religious leaders (with me representing the Archbishop of Canterbury) will be doing three things and working to make their voice heard by the politicians:

  • uniting their voices in favour of the world’s poor by working on a statement to be presented to the Muskoka summit on Thursday
  • reminding the politicians of the commitments they have already made and holding them to account
  • articulating the moral conscience of the politicians’ summit, thus putting political and economic debates/decisions in a wider moral and spiritual context against which their value can be weighed.

Of course, people are going to argue that this is whistling in the wind – that the financial crash and the fragile predicament of some leading economies have changed everything, thus rendering earlier ‘altruistic’ redundant. It is an understandable argument and carries some practical, realistic force.

But, it ignores the fact that in a global recession it is the poorest who always suffer the most (and not just relatively). The poorest, believing in many cases that they have been lied to or unjustly ignored, do not tend to stick to democratic niceties in trying to change their circumstances. The ‘rich’ countries will pay an even heavier long-term price if they do not continue to stick to their pledges to help end poverty.

As is often the case, the moral argument is often supported by what appears to be a purely pragmatic one: it continues to make good economic and political sense to do everything possible to meet previous G8 commitments and serve a longer-term economic, social and security end.

In a few hours we will start to debate these issues from diverse perspectives at the University of Winnipeg. No doubt the final statement (which is too wordy and worthy) will be edited to give it more punch and purchase; but the Canadians have done a superb job in pulling it all together and giving us a good start in combining our words and convictions.