How should we engage with the G20?

Monday, January 28, 2013 - 09:23

Since the financial crisis of 2007-08, the G20 has emerged as the world’s major economic decision-making body, to a large extent replacing the G8 which only represents countries in Europe, North America and Japan. Since the Seoul summit of 2010, the same can be said for the issue of global development.

Detailed histories of recent G20 summit and decisions are available (check out here and here), but these histories – while enlightening – don’t always offer insights into an interesting question: how should global civil society engage with the G20?

There’s no one right answer to this question, but it’s one worth considering. There are a couple of answers that strike me as wrong answers – but they might be worth stating as they represent two poles, each describing the approach of substantial chunks of civil society. For ActionAid, the reasonable approach might lie between the two.

I would describe the first as the “G8 Reincarnated” approach. The G8 (and its predecessor the G7) was – and to some extent still is – a very straightforward animal. Representing countries that play host to a majority of the world’s wealth but only a small minority of its population, and largely dominated by the United States (the G1), the G8 pushed economic policies that were disastrous for the developing world.

CSOs could slam the G8 both for its exclusive membership and lack of transparency, along with its economic policies of choice – privatization, liberalization, and budget austerity.

Such an approach can be constructive – notably when G8 leaders were forced to agree to a significant round of debt cancellation in a 2005 summit hosted by the UK. Activists are also looking to this year’s summit when the G8 returns to the UK for similar progress and an end to global hunger. But in general it was understood that this was an illegitimate body whose agenda should be opposed by anyone interested in meaningful poverty reduction and development.

According to a proponent of the “G8 Reincarnated” argument, the G20 similarly has no UN mandate, is similarly representative of only a minority of the global population (albeit a much larger minority), and is making decisions in its own best interest at the expense of the rest of the world. Therefore our position on the G20 should be an echo of our position on the G8.

On the other side of the coin, you’ve got the “Third World Rising” approach. Yes there is a distinction between the G20 and the G192 (the UN), a supporter of this approach might concede, but it is a significant step forward from the G8.

Since the G20 was formed right at the moment when “globalization” proved itself a failure, the G20 must and will move towards allowing a broader, more inclusive framework for growth, development and poverty reduction. Due to the strong role that the BRICS countries and others like Indonesia, Turkey and Argentina play in the G20, we should see this as a place where voices from the global south are pushing a much more pro-poor agenda. 

There are certainly elements of truth in both these understandings. But the question of whether the G20 will become another G8 or whether it will follow another model – perhaps something similar to the model laid out by the Non-Aligned Movement in its 1955 Bandung Conference – is still open.

Whereas the G8 represented a fairly narrow spectrum politically and G8 countries had very similar agendas economically, the G20 is a much more diverse organization, whose members are not always aligned with each other. As such the G20 is less about “products” – making global economic and development policy – and more about “process” – airing differences and searching for common ground.

This makes the G20 a space where conflicts can be played out – including conflicts around the nature of development, growth and even basic human rights. Those who are supportive of genuine equitable development and the right to live a life of dignity should be part of the discussion.