LONDON -- The men who govern the richest countries of the world, who make up the Group of Seven, determine how hundreds of millions of people around the world live their lives.
When the leaders of the United States, Japan, Canada, Britain, France, Italy and Germany pull themselves up to the summit table at Lancaster House tomorrow, they will have only themselves to speak to, share confidences with and decide on policy.
No one else will be there to put in a word for the people outside.
"Here we have seven countries running the world, taking fundamental decisions with no reference to anybody but themselves," complained Maria Elena Hurtado, newly appointed director of the World Development Movement, a British lobby fostering Third World interests.
"There are big, fundamental problems, like debt, like famine in Africa, which the developed countries could do something about. They usually only get cursory mention in the final declaration."
The summit is expected to endorse a debt-reduction plan for the poorest countries of Africa. But it is the only Third World issue on the agenda.
The G-7 are the creditor nations. They determine how and where capital flows. As a bloc, they produce more, buy more and sell more than the rest of the world combined.
The influence of this group is greater today than it has ever TTC been, tremendously enhanced by the collapse of the economies of the socialist countries over the last two years.
Before that occurred, there were two strategies for development in the world, two paths into the future: the socialist command economy (central planning, price controls and so forth) and the free-market system.
The first was championed by the Soviet Union and China, the second by the United States and its partners in Western Europe.
Most of the Third World nations came into being in the late 1950s and early 1960s, on the ruins of the retreating European empires as the East-West confrontation crystallized. They linked their destinies to one system or the other.
Now the socialist side has collapsed. That path led nowhere. A few holdouts struggle on, trying to live by socialist strategies: China, North Korea, Cuba. Their progress is minimal, their political systems squalid and corrupt. Today even the flagship -- nation of socialism, the Soviet Union, is bent on remaking itself into the image of its former foes.
Ms. Hurtado believes the breakup of the socialist world has not helped the poorer nations; rather, it has sharpened the division between north and south, rich and poor.
"It used to be that the Eastern European countries would side with the Third World. But now you have the former socialist countries over with the Western world. The Third World is more and more isolated."
Poland is already a member of the International Monetary Fund. The Soviet Union, if it receives associate membership this week, will be halfway in.
But the G-7 is jealous of its exclusivity. It was only the immense prestige of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev that got him invited to address the leaders later this week -- that and the fact he leads a country that, should it disintegrate, would propel thousands of refugees into the West European countries, which think they already have enough refugees, political and economic.
Some of the East European countries are miffed that they have not been invited. But no one responsible has suggested there is anything sinister about the G-7, or that it is ignoring the needs of the Third World out of malice.
One economist said, however, that the removal of the competition factor between East and West for allegiance of Third World countries has not helped them.
"There is no reason for [the West] to pay attention now. If you have strength, or leverage, you can get attention. No strength, no attention. It makes people cynical," the economist said, adding, "The amount of aid is declining."
Not only is the amount of aid from the richer to the poorer countries declining, said Dr. Vishnu Perfaud, head of economic affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat here, but it is often given for the wrong reasons.
"Aid is not reaching the poorest because it is given largely for political, security and commercial reasons. It doesn't get to the poorest.
"At this point, when developing countries are adopting reform policies and trying to make a great effort to improve their situation, they are not getting significant encouragement because all attention is focused on Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R."
One Canadian development worker complained that the richer countries in the G-7 rarely address basic problems of development.
"We tend to hunker down behind our national boundaries, put up strong barriers to immigration and refugees, give very small amounts of foreign assistance, then point our fingers at the non-white world and say, 'If you were as smart as us, you'd be developed, too,' " said the development worker.