Greece is the Word. But can the G20 Hummus Another Tune?

03/11/2011 15:48 GMT | Updated 03/01/2012 10:12 GMT

As somebody once said about these big summits: if you're not at the table, you're probably on the menu. And Greece has been breakfast, lunch and dinner here at the G20 so far. Its bones have been well and truly picked over. There can hardly be a morsel left to digest. President Sarkozy had aimed to put global development at the heart of the G20 agenda but Greece has been the only topic of conversation in Cannes. I've never seen a global summit so blown off course as this one.

My first G8 summit was in Birmingham in 1998. I didn't get inside that time - I was one of 70,000 people who formed a human chain around the summit to call on leaders to cancel third world debt. As I recall, something happened to divert the world's attention then. I think it was the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury went to the FA Cup Final rather than join the protest.

Over the years, these summits have often been buffeted by events. Sometimes by tragedy: in 2005, the Gleneagles G8 was temporarily suspended while Tony Blair flew to London to deal with the 7 July terror attacks. I remember how the oxygen seemed to be sucked out of the place in an instant. But that horror somehow seemed to focus leaders' minds back on the business in hand: they restarted the meeting and finished negotiations on the Gleneagles Declaration, promising $50 billion more in aid for the poorest countries.

There is a slim chance that this Cannes summit also could be brought back on track. The report presented to the G20 this afternoon by Bill Gates puts Africa centre stage. Gates recognises that Africa can be part of the solution to the global economic crisis. He says "development isn't just good for people in poor countries; it's good for all of us". With 500 million people of working age, and six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world, the G20 will be missing a trick if it fails to recognise Africa as a new source of consumer demand and a solution for weak global growth.

With a few notable exceptions, world leaders have been quietly backing away from their promises to the world's poorest and hoping nobody would notice. The Gates report shows how financing for the fight against poverty can be found, leaving leaders with no excuse not to act. A coordinated global agreement on investment, aid and innovative taxes could raise enough revenue to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and avoid catastrophic consequences of the eurozone crises - not only for Europe and the international finance system, but also for developing countries who are the innocent victims of this crisis.

The G20 has never met this close to Africa. The continent is barely five hundred miles from where the leaders are sitting. Yet the interests of Africa feel a world away. If he can go the extra mile in the next few hours, President Sarkozy might just ensure this G20 is remembered for more than the Greek crisis. It's a long shot - but don't bet against it just yet.