Three fixes that can save the G20 from becoming just ‘a meeting place for leaders’
Gatherings of the leaders and finance ministers from the Group of 20 leading economies tend to promise a lot but come up short on substance
The eleventh G20 summit, held in Hangzhou on September 4 to 5, brought China’s 2016 presidency to an end. The over-arching target for this year’s G20 was support for “an innovative, invigorated, interconnected and inclusive world economy”. Nothing to argue with there.
But prevailing circumstances do not exactly smile upon the attainment of these objectives. Trade and investment continue to languish, reflecting low average GDP growth performance globally. Productivity growth seems to have taken extended leave.
Populism nurtured by demagogic politicians has stoked the fires of anti-globalisation, especially in industrialised economies. Even without the ugly politics of false promise, a strong sense of exclusion has gripped large segments of populations in many low to zero growth economies.
Governments are in part to blame for disregarding the consequences of unevenly spread opportunity. Massive movements of refugees and a mounting incidence of terrorism have provoked increasingly unfriendly inward-looking attitudes, and intensified fears for personal safety and security.
Setting aside the appalling hardship facing refugee populations, some would argue that these ailments are rich country problems. Anti-globalisation is indeed more easily associated with the rich. But the consequences of spurning it are global.
In the face of all these challenges, it may look incongruous that the G20 had such an active year. The outcome document – the Hangzhou Summit Communique – is resolute. It represents the hard work of thousands of officials, several international agencies and sundry interest groups.
The array of issues covered is astounding, backed up by numerous support groups and tailored activities that made it all happen. The G20 received around 50 reports, communiques and statements. Engagement Groups included the T20 (Think 20), the B20 (business), C20 (civil society) and the W20 (women).
The main Hangzhou Summit Communique contained cross-references to action plans, initiatives, agendas, principles, programmes, strategies, platforms and reports on a veritable smorgasbord of pressing topics.
These include innovation, industrial policy, the digital economy, structural reform, financial architecture, corruption and asset recovery, energy, trade, investment, inclusive business, infrastructure connectivity, entrepreneurship, sustainability, apprenticeships, and climate change finance. The list is not exhaustive.
Is such a wide-ranging agenda attainable? How can so many issues be prioritised? Who will be relied upon to ensure that all these initiatives either deliver or are explicitly abandoned? These may seem carping, vision-assaulting questions, but they go to the heart of what the world should expect from the G20.
A growing band of critics suggests that the G20 embodies too much diversity and too many competing agendas to amount to more than a meeting place for leaders. Gatherings can serve to ensure that leaders and their senior advisers become better acquainted and facilitate an exchange of views on pressing issues of the day.
These are useful attributes of the grouping. But if that is the sum of the endeavour, it would be inappropriate, misleading and unjustifiably expensive for the G20 to invest so heavily in blueprints and action plans.
The successful realisation of aspirations underlying these constructs could be transformational. But their multiplication year after year, in a succession of G20 orchestrations that produce unrealised outcomes, will only dull the senses and render important objectives ordinary and familiarly unattainable.
The G20 can and should do better than this. Perhaps it will. But not unless concerted efforts are deployed to take hard decisions and shoot for concrete outcomes.
Three courses of action might facilitate such outcomes. First, if the range of identified priorities were to be narrowed down and given an action-oriented focus, concrete outcomes would be less elusive.
Second, the locus of action must be national, and not left in the ether of shared but unapportioned responsibility.
Third, systematic accountability and monitoring would not only render national actions more probable, but would also impart a useful demonstration effect. The G20’s Comprehensive Accountability Report on G20 Development Commitments reflects recognition of the need for follow-up, but the commitment should foster a greater sense of accountability.
The G20 will be a much more valuable global asset when it develops the mechanisms to turn resolve into action.
Patrick Low is a fellow at the Asia Global Institute of the University of Hong Kong