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This is a joint post with Owen Barder

Whether future historians remember last week’s G-20 Summit in Cannes will depend on what happens in the weeks and months ahead. If the eurozone problems spiral out of control, Cannes will be to the coming crash as the 1933 London Economic Conference was to the Great Depression: a lost chance to avert calamity. If Europe muddles through, the brief association of Cannes with the G-20 will be soon forgotten and the resort will again be famous for its film festival.

CGD board member Mark Malloch Brown, who as a British minister was closely involved in the 2009 London Summit, at an earlier point in this protracted economic crisis, judged the Cannes Summit to be “a mess” and a disappointment, noting that the leaders were overtaken by events, including political developments in Greece and fresh signs that the Italian economy is also in trouble.

Whether or not the Europeans eventually summon the will to rescue the eurozone, the Cannes Summit is not likely to be remembered for its progress on the pressing issues for which the G-20 is supposed to be the global economic steering group, still less on the ambitious development agenda which the G-20 endorsed last year at the previous summit in Seoul.

The Cannes Summit’s final communiqué was mostly a recitation of things to which the G-20 had previously committed, plus the usual agreement to meet again next June in an attractive location: next stop is Mexico’s Baja California resort city of Los Cabos. There was no mention of several promising commitments made in Seoul on which little progress has been made. Neither was there an update on the Pittsburgh commitment to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels. If anything, we are going backwards: the summit effectively accepted the failure of the Doha Development Round of trade talks.

The disappointing results were not for lack of ambition or effort on the part of the French hosts. French President Nicholas Sarkozy commissioned high level contributions from Bill Gates on development finance, David Cameron on global governance, Tidjane Thiam on infrastructure and the World Bank on climate finance. The French Presidency focused primarily on two development areas: infrastructure and food security. In the end, neither amounted to much. On infrastructure, there is a list of infrastructure projects to be financed in developing countries ‘if the countries and regional organizations concerned so wish’. The communique is strikingly weak on food security – agreeing to end export restrictions only for ‘food purchased for non-commercial, humanitarian purposes by the World Food Program’, and announcing an agricultural market information system.

Gates’s 75-minute presentation and discussion with the leaders turned out to be the main contribution to the development debate. Supporters of the Financial Transaction Tax – including President Sarkozy – will have been disappointed that his report did not offer a ringing endorsement; the United States and UK will have been relieved. His report was firmer on the economically sound principle of taxing things with large negative externalities – perhaps in years to come Cannes will be seen as the first step down the road towards higher taxes on tobacco, and aviation and bunker fuel, the oil burned in ships.

Gates said on his Facebook wall that he was gratified to hear the leaders “recommit to financing for global development, and to see in the G20 communiqué many of the recommendations in my report.” The communiqué did indeed mention these issues, including Advance Market Commitments, an idea pioneered at CGD, but without making any specific commitments to pursue them:

We agree that, over time, new sources of funding need to be found to address development needs. We discussed a set of options for innovative financing highlighted by Mr Bill Gates, such as Advance Market Commitments, Diaspora Bonds, taxation regime for bunker fuels, tobacco taxes, and a range of different financial taxes. Some of us have implemented or are prepared to explore some of these options. We acknowledge the initiatives in some of our countries to tax the financial sector for various purposes, including a financial transaction tax, inter alia to support development.

A statement on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Web site said that the foundation stands ready to work Mexico, host of the 2012 G20 Summit, and other partners “to turn the recommendations in the report into concrete actions.”

Here’s hoping that Gates is right and when the leaders next meet in Los Cabos the global economy will have stabilized to the point that the G-20 can devote more attention to shared global problems that affect poor people in the developing world and somewhat less to patching up economies of the word’s top billion.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.