G20: the hits, the misses and the maybes

Friday, November 4, 2011 - 16:04

It feels like we’ve gone through about two weeks in the conference center here in Cannes, rather than two days. But we’ve made it through, with all the heads of government now making their closing statements now, and exiting with their motorcades to the airport.

The G20 have given us many documents to read through. The main one, as usual, is the communiqué, which is about eight pages long.  That’s the one that provides the headlines, attracting all the initial comments and analysis.  But in the last ten minutes, we’ve gotten the “declaration,” which is substantially longer, and the “action plan.”  I will have to leave those for reading on the train back to Paris.

The communiqué had its share both of pleasant surprises and disappointments. The best news is on tax havens. My colleague Martin Hearson, from ActionAid UK, has said:

While the world’s attention has focused on Greece, the G20 has quietly chipped away at the protective shell of financial secrecy, which hurts developing and developed countries alike. The era of banking secrecy is still far from over, but the movement towards that end is unmistakable.

Specifically, the G20 members all signed up to a convention on fighting tax evasion, and urged tax havens to join them (they probably will, under such pressure). They’ve published a report on the fight against tax havens that names and shames eleven tax havens.  For the first time, they’ve acknowledged the harm done by multinational companies’ tax-dodging while operating in developing countries -- and by tax havens to developing countries. At last the G20 seems to be making good on its previous pledges – though they will still have to prove themselves in practice.

The news is less good on food security. With global food prices at record highs and promises of leadership from French President Sarkozy, we had high hopes that G20 leaders would take bold action in Cannes to address global food insecurity. But aside from the long-expected endorsement of the West African emergency food reserve project, G20 leaders ducked serious action that could prevent food crises. But the G20 has also continued to refuse to even discuss the idea of the use of strategic buffer reserves, the most effective tool governments could have to modulate price volatility.

On biofuels, G20 leaders continued to ignore the report they commissioned by 10 leading international organizations, which called on governments to eliminate market-distorting biofuel mandates and incentives.

On commodity speculation, the G20 endorses the use of position limits – the proportion of a given commodity any single investor may control. Depending on how this is implemented, this could be a significant step in limiting food price volatility. 

All in all, it was a more successful summit, from ActionAid’s point of view, than Seoul or Toronto. It’s likely that Cannes will be remembered chiefly as the “Greek crisis summit.” But some important promises have been made. Now it’s up to ActionAid and other groups to make sure they are kept, and that progress is made in the many other areas where change is still needed for people in the developing world.

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