The G20's actions must speak louder than words

As an informal meeting with no enforcement power, the G20 will only be effective if countries deliver on their commitments. Getting the public involved is one way of strengthening its accountability.

The G20 has become a big industry. Before being elevated to a leader’s level process, it consisted of an annual meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors. Officials met twice each year to prepare for these meetings. Things have changed.

There are 69 separate events listed on Australia’s G20 website for 2015. In addition to the summit, there are five meetings of finance ministers and many meetings of officials. One journalist described the G20 as a stairway to heaven for international bureaucrats.

But also included are many meetings organised by the ‘alphabet 20’: the B, C, L, Y and T 20s. These are the engagement partners, covering business, civil society, labour, youth and think tanks from G20 countries. Many of the alphabet 20 are having their ‘summits’ in June and July.

The alphabet 20 is a mechanism for gathering ideas from citizens in G20 countries and feeding them into the G20 process. The focus of the various ‘summits’ in coming weeks is to settle on recommendations as to what each group would like to see discussed at the Brisbane Summit.

The process of involving non-government stakeholders is evolving but has become more organised under the Australian presidency. It is an important development. It not only provides a means for citizens to have an input into what their leaders should be dealing with, it is an important aspect of strengthening the accountability of the G20.

The G20 will only be effective if countries deliver on their commitments. It has no enforcement power. It is an informal meeting. There is much talk of peer pressure, but no country will take a policy step unless it is considered to be in their best interest -- not in the interest of someone else.

And G20 leaders are not accountable to other leaders. They are ultimately accountable to their citizens. Hence the more people in each country become involved, and raise their voice as to what they want to see come out of international meetings, the more likely there will be action and not just words.

When the various members of the alphabet 20 have their summits, agreeing on recommendations to be presented to the G20 chair is only part of the input that they can make. It is a political process and the various groups should then embark on a major advocacy campaign aimed at the domestic constituencies in each G20 country.

The most important consultations are not those that take place at the meetings in Australia, but those between members of these groups with their respective leaders, ministers and officials in their home countries. The aim should be to build a groundswell of support for G20 leaders not only to agree on certain policies, but to actually implement them.

Australia could (and should) take a further step to strengthen community engagement in the G20.  For example, the government should release for public comment the plan it intends to submit at the Brisbane summit for lifting growth in Australia, as part of the G20 commitment to increase global economic growth by an additional 2 per cent over five years. It is true that all politics is local. And the more the public is involved in the commitments made at economic summits, the more likely they will be implemented.

Mike Callaghan is program director, G20 Studies Centre at the Lowy Institute.  A conference focused on ‘Strengthening the G20’s Accountability and Effectiveness’ is being held at the Westin Hotel today.  

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