WHEN IT COMES TO POVERTY, the world has a short attention span. Seldom has that been demonstrated more clearly than at the Group of 8 summit that ended Monday, when an agenda that already gave short shrift to the problems of the developing world was largely hijacked by current events.
Just a year ago, global poverty was Topic A at the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, with the group of industrialized nations devising an inspiring agreement to relieve the crushing debts faced by many Third World nations and to boost development aid.
The summit's host sets the agenda, and this year's host, Russia, had other interests. President Vladimir V. Putin set out to focus on energy security, infectious diseases (mostly the scourge of bird flu, which so far is of almost no danger to humans, rather than real killers like malaria and AIDS) and education.
Russia didn't get much of what it wanted, thanks in part to the dangerous conflict between Israel and the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, which took up much of the time and attention of the leaders gathered in St. Petersburg. (It also prompted President Bush to utter a four-letter word during what he thought was an unmonitored conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, quickly overshadowing more important news at the summit.) But the world's poor were far bigger losers than the Russians. No attempt was made to build on last year's progress or ensure that the promises made at Gleneagles are kept.
Perhaps most disappointing was the summit's failure to make real progress on the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks, which focuses on reducing farm supports and tariffs in industrialized countries that prevent agrarian nations from trading their way out of poverty. G-8 leaders paid some lip service to Doha, saying they are committed to reaching a deal within a month. But no new proposals were offered, and few hold out much hope that trade ministers can resolve their differences as leaders in the United States and European Union play a disgraceful game of chicken, refusing to budge until the other blinks.
U.S. trade officials somehow keep a straight face about their commitment to reduce farm subsidies while sticking to a proposal that would set a ceiling of $22.6 billion a year on subsidy payments -- $3 billion more than was paid last year. That's at least better than Europe's cosmetic proposal, which would allow the EU to boost its subsidies even more.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised Monday to make poverty the top priority of next year's G-8 summit, which her nation will host. That's encouraging. It would be naive to believe that, had events in the Middle East not taken such a horrifying turn, this year's summit would have made much progress on either trade or poverty. But at least Merkel's gesture shows that the campaign to attack the world's most pressing problem remains alive.