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G-8 leaders pledge to help the poor

But they fail to say who will pay for lofty goals

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NAGO, Okinawa — Leaders of the world's most powerful economies pledged Sunday to help poor countries reduce their debts and improve their education, health care and computer technology, but proposed little real money for the initiatives.

Some analysts wonder whether the Group of Eight — the United States, Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia, the newest member — still matters.

In a 21-page summit-ending communique, the countries said they would work harder to relieve the debt burden of developing nations. They set a goal of universal primary education for all the world's children by 2015 and gender equality in schools by 2005. They also pledged a one-quarter reduction by the year 2010 in the number of young people infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, the summit host, said wealthy nations had an obligation to break the "vicious cycle" of poverty and disease faced by poor nations. He declined, however, to say whether Japan would provide funds to help developing nations enter the information superhighway.

In fact, there was no statement on how the leaders would pay for the goals they set for themselves, other than President Clinton's pledge of $300 million in surplus farm crops to provide school lunches in the developing world.

"They're basically repeating what they have done in recent years — a very long laundry list of relatively marginal decisions," said C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics. "I simply think they have gone off track."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the G-8's work at the summit.

"For many who work hard in the developing world, progress is often agonizingly slow," Blair said. "But we have made some significant steps" in helping poorer nations.

The summit was the final G-8 meeting for Clinton, who arrived late and departed quickly because of the simultaneous Mideast peace talks at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md. Speaking for the other leaders, Blair said, "He will be missed greatly."

In addition to its pledges on debt relief, education and health care, the leaders called for new partnerships with undeveloped countries to "bring the opportunities of the next century within reach of all."

They established an information technology task force to make recommendations on how best to "bridge the international information and knowledge divide" between rich and poor nations.

They urged a new round of world trade talks this year despite the violent protests in Seattle last year that prevented it from advancing the cause of free trade.

"As we make the transition to the new century, we will continue to exercise leadership and responsibility in addressing these persistent problems and squarely face new challenges as they arise," the communique said.

There was no agreement, however, on the issue of genetically modified food, which the United States and Canada generally think is safe while the Europeans and Japanese are skeptical, French President Jacques Chirac said Sunday. The communique glossed over the differences.

Some critics say the group has had problems following up effectively on the important advances it does make. Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was disappointed by the lack of progress since the group agreed to provide debt relief to poor countries at last year's summit.

"I recognize that there are no simple solutions to the debt problem," Annan said in a statement. "But . . . clearly more must be done."

Roman Prodi, president of the European Commission, said Annan's statement was unfair. "He expressed his disappointment before we even discussed the problem in Okinawa," he said.

In the group's early years in the 1970s, summits were more informal. There was no intense bureaucratic flurry, no rambling, pre-cooked statements.

Jeffrey Schott, a negotiator in the 1973-79 Tokyo Round of the GATT, the precursor of the World Trade Organization, said the 1978 summit provided real advances in global trade.

"The need for the G8 is perhaps as important if not more important as it ever has been," said Schott, now a senior fellow at Bergsten's think tank. "But the output ... has become less and less useful over time."

One problem is that meetings increasingly have become orchestrated as they elevated in profile, leaving little to negotiate between heads of state.

Also, the number of issues the G-8 are dealing with has grown. While the original group dealt mainly with economic matters, the meetings in Okinawa focused on problems like the proposed U.S. missile defense shield and North Korea.

The inclusion of Russia — a key political player but a marginal economic power — has furthered this trend by bringing in a member that does not participate fully in the economic discussions.

And the world is no longer the place it was in the 1970s. The rise of Asia in the world economy, for example, has challenged the overwhelming European presence at the summit.

For some, the annual summits have become annual lost opportunities.

Critics say leaders should make more of their chance to make the kinds of tough bargains and agreements that lower level bureaucrats do not have the authority to make.

One key step to giving the future summits could be to limit the scope of the meeting so summiteers could concentrate — and provide some breakthroughs — on the most important issues.

Bergsten, for example, proposes a more manageable G-3 — the United States, the European Union, and Japan.

"You'd be much more effective," he said.