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The G20 Summit: Do the people matter?

On the 5-6 September the G20 Summit will take place in St Petersburg Russia. Despite questions of its legitimacy, as it includes only20 states (with South Africa the only African representative), the G20 is seen as a key forum in addressing global economic governance and has expanded its agenda to include a range pressing international issues from climate change to anti-corruption.

But what do these annual high-profile summits mean for ‘the people’? The priorities set out for discussion from the Russian hosts this year, which include ‘developing a set of measures aimed at boosting sustainable, inclusive and balanced growth and jobs creation around the world’, will have a particular meaning for South Africa with our own focus oneradicating inequality, poverty and creating jobs.

Governments are certainly paying more attention to the voice of civil society, with the influence of the people on the ground during the ‘Arab spring’ still lingering in recent memory. Ultimately it is the people(the tax payer) who will bear the cost of any international decision governments may make as they will have to provide the resources, whether human or financial. Civil society is also often responsible for filling in the gaps when it comes to the implementation of government policies, where governments may not be able to provide services.

Without the public’s support, an international agreement may mean very little. This was a lesson learnt by US President Woodrow Wilson when he failed to get support for the US to join the League of Nations, and again by President Bush in the failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol addressing climate change,as a result of a lack of public support at home amidst a growing energy crisis and dependence on fossil fuel.

Recognition of the importance of ‘the people’ isevident in the inclusion of the first ever Civil Society Summit, or C20, held from the 13-14th June in Moscow as part of the G20 outreach process by the Russian government (perhaps somewhat ironically given the challenges faced by civil society within Russia). The purpose of the meeting was to offer the opportunity for civil society to engage in dialogue,producing recommendations that would filter into the G20 summit.

From the outset civil society was quick to point out the growing ‘crisis of trust’ between government and civil society, particularly following the international financial crisis. From within the Plenary Hall at The President Hotelthere were calls to re-look at the types of partnerships and open up a new debate on the role of civil society, democracy, and the role of parliaments.

Members of South Africa’s civil society, ranging from research organisations to activists groups, had the opportunity to participate following invitations from the Russian government and other sponsorship. Not only did it allow for engagement between participants but, highlighted a lot of convergences between countries on what our leaders should be considering at the G20 summit. Prominent on the list werequestions concerning tax havens and banking secrecy, two issues that are important to Africa which lost US$1.3 trillion between 1980 and 2009 alone through illicit financial outflows that often land up in off-shore accounts 1.

Anti-corruption and job creation also featured prominently among the issues civil society want our government’s to address. Here attention was given to the creation of decent jobs, financial stability and sustainable growth. Addressing climate change and sustainable development attracted a large crowd in the White Hall session of the C20 meeting.A South African voice was present here as concerns related to energy, growth and development were put towards the panel for consideration and inclusion into the final recommendations. Indeed, although only a small number of representatives from South Africa attended the C20, their voices were heard in most sessions.

Despite the presence of South Africa, there was a distinct lack of African voices at the C20 consultations as a result of the limited nature of the G20, and even then theSouth African voice was not coordinated from within civil society. This was in contrast to the Labour 20 (L20) held in July, which included the elected representatives of trade unions from the G20 countries. Here there were consultations and negotiations in South Africa between representatives prior to the L20 meeting in Moscow.

Nevertheless, with the absence of other African voices it fell to those present to ensure that areas of importance for the continent, such as sustainable development, equality and job creation, remained central when the discussions turned to more European concerns and challenges surrounding the international financial crisis. 

While the numerous sessions addressed issues ranging from food security to the international financial architecture, overall the feeling at the C20 was that there needs to be more done in terms of addressing questions of governance, particularly in terms of inequality, transparency, accountability and non-discrimination. After a packed 2 days of discussion the final recommendations from the C20 were taken by officials, who were quick to recognise the importance of public participation as integral to the G20,and presented to President Putin.

As we head towards the G20 Summit this September the question remains whether this process will mean anything beyond ‘ticking a box’ of participation, to civil society playing a meaningful role in shaping G20 thinking, and ultimately its outcomes.Australia has already announced that they will continue along the path opened by Russia in engaging with civil society at a C20 prior to the next G20 meeting in Brisbane. This presents an opportunity for South African civil society to prepare now for a more coordinated approach towards engagement on the G20 agenda 2014,as well as looking towards engaging the voices of other African civil society groups prior to attending any future meeting. Yet, whether the C20 process has any real value in making sure the voices of civil society have been heard will only be evidentwhen the final communiqueis released from the Summit, but here’s hoping.

 

1 “Illicit Financial Flowsand the Problem of Net Resource Transfers from Africa: 1980-2009”, joint report by the African Development Bank and Global Financial Integrity, May 2013, p. 2.

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