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G20 Summit Offered Little Of Substance For The World's Poorest

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By John Sinclair

The G20 Summit, the first chaired by a developing country, China, confirmed its super-star status, but was it necessary for them to overlook the red carpet for President Obama? The final group photo has been taken, but without the traditional display of host country national dress, just dull western business suits.

g20 leaders
Leaders pose for pictures during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

No wonder they did not get around to discussing the middle-class anger at globalization seen in many developed countries, most strikingly in current US presidential politics. The photo exposes several other serious flaws: 16 add-ons for a supposed cosy discussion between 20 world leaders. There is also a serious issue with gender balance. But to re-assure Ottawa readers, it is only G20 photo-op etiquette that has newcomers like PM Trudeau placed near the back.

What did this huge event achieve? The formal answer lies in the communiqué, but this is nine pages and 7000 words long. Remind yourself that this was written by a drafting committee of sherpas, senior diplomatic bureaucrats, over several months of 'tough' negotiations. You will be also forgiven for thinking it reads remarkably like previous communiqués: promises but limited results. The Leaders were essentially bystanders in endorsing the text. The core G20 message was that trade must be used to boost economies, hardly an earth-shattering insight from a meeting of global leaders, surrounded by finance and trade ministers.

Much of the real activity was what the diplomacy 'business' calls 'bilaterals', a sort of diplomatic speed-dating. There were inconclusive side-discussions between Russia and the US on Syria [a deal was later finalized in Geneva]. Canada was reportedly busy lobbying individual European leaders (why so many European leaders at the G20?) to try to rescue a rather shaky CETA. UK PM Terese May was busy trying to explain what ' Brexit ' might mean for already stagnating global trade as well as insecure EU citizens living in the UK.

China intended this summit be a break from the past, a substance discussion on global issues, with a focus on oft-neglected international development. This would indeed have been very timely, energizing support for Agenda 2030 and a big plus for China's leadership. However, it never seemed to happen.

There was just one moment of bold leadership. In a meeting full of recycled promises on managing the global economy, the Chinese President Xi and a departing U.S. President Obama jointly announced their ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Sadly, nobody rose to join them. With no carbon tax consensus with the provinces, Canada was certainly not ready.

So what opportunities were missed? A key one is that for all the talk of inclusiveness, the G20 is an elitist club, blending the top western countries, a tired G7 and a new elite of developing countries essentially represented by the BRICS. The numbers were rounded up to 20 by adding a few favourites from the OECD, some other middle-income developing countries (MICs) and the two EU Commission seats.

When the talk is supposedly about tackling global issues, most obviously the UN's Agenda 2030, there should be a meaningful if modest G20 representation of the bottom billion suffering extreme poverty, logically from the least developed (LDCs) and fragile (g7+) countries. Yes, a few poorer countries are occasionally invited as guests to watch the spectacle and share the coffee breaks. But this is all tokenism.

A suggestion: ease out a couple of Europeans and replace them with one permanent full member selected from/by the LDCs and g7+. That country might change every five years, as might some of the Europeans and senior officials from multilateral organizations. They would certainly add a new dynamic to G20 discussion on refugees or tax evasion by multinational enterprises. Global development cooperation might even replace banking regulation as the top topic!

Another suggestion: that the annual G20 summit revert to being just a meeting of Leaders. A complementary parallel process would be created for all those finance ministers and central bankers to work on global financial issues without the clutter of bored presidents. When/if there is another global crisis or a key decision that they cannot resolve alone, they will delegate a small team to present the issues to the Leaders' summit. Or an enlarged Summit could be called to tackle another global crisis.

The newly liberated Leaders would no longer need to sneak off in an extended coffee break to discuss key political issues like the conflict in Syria or climate change or North Korean nuclear weapons. Global security and international development would become standard agenda items. Of course such issues if urgent would still be subjects for the UN Security Council. However, if systemic and longer-term, a properly inclusive G20 could play an important role.

All very complicated, but certainly more inclusive than a current process that has often yielded unrealistic, repetitive communiqués. Could such institutional change could be something to explore in an extended coffee break at the 2017 G20 Summit with Germany as chair? The chairs of the g7+ and UN LDC caucus would be invited.

John Sinclair was a development practitioner with the former CIDA and World Bank. He is a member of the McLeod Group and was a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and Associate of the former North-South Institute.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CCIC or its members.

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