Will the G20 Cut It? Four Lessons From Brisbane

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Tony Abbott and Vladimir Putin meet koalas before the start of the first G20 meeting in Brisbane. Photograph: Andrew Taylor/AFP/Getty Images
Tony Abbott and Vladimir Putin meet koalas before the start of the first G20 meeting in Brisbane. Photograph: Andrew Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

The G20 has been widely criticised in past years as being all talk and no action. When first framing the 10 City Bridge Run ahead of the Seoul G20 Summit in 2010, I asked “Will the G20 cut it?” at this link.

In the wake of the wash-up from the Brisbane G20 Summit, this question still is worth asking. What did we learn from Brisbane? Here is my analysis in four lessons:

Firstly, it is important to recognise that the G20 is a global economic institution. This means that the language will largely be around issues of trade, employment, debt, taxation and monetary policy. This does also include development issues relating to poverty as key to this equation. The G20 Development Working Group begins the 2014 Brisbane Development Update with a statement that is more than just a throwaway line:

Development remains a key element of the Group of Twenty (G20) agenda.

I sense that the G20 recognises both its ability and limitation to influence development through strengthening economic growth and resilience. This is at the heart of economic thought: how to best allocate the distribution of scarce resources.

The opening line from the G20 Leaders’ Communique flags the core priority of the G20, and consequently overshadows dilemmas this might bring in addressing issues of development:

Raising global growth to deliver better living standards and quality jobs for people across the world is our highest priority.

Secondly, the Summit is to some extent a forum of theatrics. It is misleading to think the G20 Summit as a dynamic roundtable to discuss all of the issues in detail. There is a lot of preliminary and behind-the-scenes discussions and negotiations that take place outside of the limelight to resolve how members of the G20 will orientate their national interest with the agenda for the Summit. It is more than a photo opportunity, and such gatherings are important.

Theatrics serve a purpose, and they also signal what people are keenly focused on. In focusing on one thing, they also steal a lot of the oxygen out of the occasion to more freely discuss a broader range of issues. In Brisbane, the theatrics was mainly seen through the grandstanding of and by Putin around the Ukraine incident. That is signalling how the Ukraine is fast becoming a place of heightened strategic value for leaders to communicate their sovereign will and power. The consequences of this grandstanding will not be immediately clear, but ripple through events that are yet to unfold.

Consequences are important, and the issue that receives the limelight will be at the expense of others that do not get discussed in depth. Obama flagged his theatrics publicly at a university address prior to the G20 to gain most favourable media attention to help sway his agenda.

Thirdly, wording is important and will ultimately drive action. The concluding G20 Leaders’ Communique and supporting documents give guidance for the future. If an issue doesn’t make the list, that would be troubling for those who see it as important. The question becomes one of what concrete and practical action will actually trickle down from this wording? 

The 2014 Brisbane Development Update was quite clear about what that G20 sees as an important priority, quoted here directly from the document:

Our work has continued to contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Further, we reaffirmed our strong support for the ongoing intergovernmental efforts in the UN to conclude an inclusive and people-centred post-2015 development agenda and for its effective implementation. We reaffirmed the commitment of the international community to poverty eradication and a coherent approach to sustainable development, which integrates its three dimensions in a balanced manner. We underlined the central imperative of poverty eradication and are committed to freeing humanity from poverty and hunger as a matter of urgency. We look forward to the third Financing for Development Conference to be held in Addis Ababa in July 2015. We reaffirmed our commitment to ensure that G20 activities beyond 2015 are coherent with the post 2015 development agenda.

The wording from the G20 Leaders’ Communique shows that this responsibility is one that is for the United Nations to resolve, but one which has the support of the G20 for an ambitious post-2015 agenda: We support efforts in the United Nations to agree an ambitious post-2015 development agenda. The question of how an issue will strengthen economic growth and resilience is important to address to receive more attention.

Fourthly, who actually holds the G20 to account for their words? The declarations made at the conclusion of each Summit are not so much binding as aspirational guidance. The Seoul Consensus for the 2010 G20 Summit shown at the link at the beginning of this blog helped shape this central theme of a human bridge which supports the 10 City Bridge Run. The Seoul Consensus showed its priorities framed in the following statements:

We, the Leaders of the G20, are united in our conviction that by working together we can secure a more prosperous future for the citizens of all countries… The Seoul Consensus complements our commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and focuses on concrete measures … to make a tangible and significant difference in people’s lives.

 

There is consistency between what was written in 2010 and most recently in Brisbane yesterday. This is comforting to know, and no small measure for optimism as we look to address child survival in the context of economic growth and resilience. Recent statements from Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop about embracing a new paradigm of development assistance through looking for innovative ideas is consistent with this as well to build concrete measures to make a tangible and significant difference in people’s lives through improving child survival.

The case for taking action is an ethical issue. It is a good thing to do and the right thing to do, as well as being just. It doesn’t need the imprimatur of the G20 to take action. As global citizens, the outcome from the G20 Summit in Brisbane indicates that the institution is something to be readily engaged with on this issue because we both share a common objective. Opening the conversation with countries from the G20 is an important step towards the Design Forum in 2015.

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