Can The G20 Credibility Gap Be Closed?

MEXICO CITY - Whether the G20 is a credible or even legitimate body has been a vibrant topic of conversation among civil society groups that have been meeting in Mexico City this week to discuss strategy for both the G8 and G20 summits this year.

Mexico’s foreign minister, when asked about the legitimacy of the G20, conceded she had her own concerns about its track record on following through on promises.

“The G20 has adopted a series of decisions, very concrete decisions on multiple topics that have not been translated into concrete actions,” Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa said in a frank exchange with civil society representatives on Thursday.

Espinosa, who brought along a large delegation to the civil society meeting, said the G20’s legitimacy came up last weekend when foreign ministers met informally in Los Cabos, the Mexican seaside resort where the summit will be held in June.

“It (the G20) must not pretend to be a forum to give mandates,” Espinosa told the civil society meeting, which comprised representatives from 56 organizations from 14 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, India and Peru.

The G20 emerged out of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Its economic clout is huge, with those represented in the group accounting for 90 percent of global GDP. Since its founding, the original economic focus of the G20 has expanded to cover a range of other issues, from infrastructure and "green growth" to food security, tax havens and anticorruption efforts.

 But does the G20 really matter if decisions are not translated into concrete actions? And how can this exclusive grouping do a better job of including the voice of the world's most marginalized populations that are hardest hit by the current economic crisis?

“We do not want to speak just for the sake of speaking,” said one civil society representative when presenting development proposals to the Mexican government at the meeting. Espinosa nodded her head and later promised to put civil society proposals on the G20 website, saying that her government wanted a good dialogue with the group and for their demands to be known.

It will take more than putting up documents on a website to check the civil society involvement box.

Some practical suggestions for the G20 include making a concerted effort to include regular input from civil society when new policies are formulated. For civil society to give this input, there needs to be access, with details provided on meetings and the names of key people to contact. In addition, a permanent, independent G20 accountability framework or mechanism should be put in place to track commitments made at summits.

There also needs to be continuity when the ownership of the G20 is passed on from year to year.  Last year France chaired the G20 (and the G8). This year, Mexico has the rotating presidency while the United States has the G8. Interesting to note that both countries have presidential elections this year and so domestic priorities will probably dominate.

At a news conference at the end of the three days of civil society meetings, G20 governments were urged to come up with transparent plans to implement proposals made in the countless summits. “They need to translate their promises into clear deliverables and action plans," said Joanna Rea, co-chair of the G8/G20 Working Group, the loose coalition of NGOs, trades unions and other civil society groups who met in Mexico City.

G20 finance ministers are meeting in Mexico City this weekend to discuss, among other topics, how to tackle Europe’s debt crisis and prevent contagion. One of civil society’s strong asks was that financial leaders cannot think of the financial system without investing in the life and rights of ordinary individuals, said Oxfam Mexico’s Carlos Zarco. “These monies never get to the people.”

In other words, leaders need to look at both the macro (big finance issues) and the micro (the people affected by their decisions). What they decide in Mexico City could have long-term implications (good or bad) for real people – whether they have a job or can put food on their table.

Food security emerged as a key theme at the meetings this week. To put the challenge in context, one in seven people in the world go to bed hungry every night and one in four of the world’s children are stunted, according to Save the Children figures. So while economies in some nations might be growing, their children are not. To tackle this problem, there needs to be a big focus on nutrition and increased investment in social protection and safety net programs to blunt the shock from spiraling food prices. Biofuel mandates and subsidies should be abandoned to help reduce food price volatility.

The Mexican government has food security high on their G20  agenda as well as green growth and “financial inclusion,” a topic that is expected to be discussed this weekend at the finance ministers’ meeting.

So what does the term financial inclusion mean in real terms? It means that the quality and range of affordable financial services – credit, savings, insurance and other products – must be expanded to those who are often marginalized. By doing this, people are better able to overcome economic shocks and have a direct role in their own financial future.

On the point of inclusion, another topic at the Mexico meeting was a suggestion to create a C20 track – an organized grouping of civil society. There is already a B20 (Business track) and an L20 (Labor track) that feeds into the G20 process. Why not have a formalized civil society grouping?

What do others think? How can civil society play a more direct role in the decisions that G20 leaders make? And what do you think of the G20 process anyway? With a rotating chair and no fixed secretariat, how can it be efficient or accountable? Let us know your thoughts.