G20 is getting a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering

This blog post was originally published on the Huffington Post UK‘s website.

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“Narrowing the development gap and reducing poverty are integral to our broader objective of achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth and ensuring a more robust and resilient global economy for all.” Toronto G20 Summit, 2010

If prizes were awarded for warm words and rhetoric then the G20 would be top of the class. But the mask is slipping. The G20 is getting a reputation for over-promising and under-delivering. It’s becoming the dodgy second hand car dealer of global governance.

Los Cabos is the seventh time the G20 has met at Heads of State level. Representing 80% of the world’s economic power, leaders were supposed to come together to take on challenges too large for any individual country to solve alone. These don’t come bigger than reducing extreme poverty, and the G20 set out to do this a different way. Its mix of emerging and developed countries, and its focus on economic issues, meant the G20 should have been the ideal forum to find smart policy solutions that integrate not only the challenges in developing nations, but also the potential. Those rising nations, many in Africa, are precisely the creators of global growth and innovation needed to boost sluggish Western economies. The mutual interest was clear so at Seoul in 2010 leaders set out a new Development Consensus. It was ground-breaking for its focus on partnership, economic growth and South-South participation. The message was: “We’re not the G8 and we’ll do things on the terms of developing countries.” So far, so good.

Two years on, the Seoul Consensus is on life-support. In a world of seemingly permanent economic crisis leaders have repeatedly failed to make time for the concerns of the poorest people on the planet. Of course the Eurozone has rightly been high on the agenda but on this issue too performance has been weak. That they haven’t done much better on reaching solutions to the growth and jobs crisis in rich country economies either just compounds the problem. The summitry cycle is delivering for no one, and the world is waking up to it.

Ironically this breaking point has been reached under a Mexican Presidency that has run the most open, consultative G20 in history. But a Presidency committed to a good process cannot achieve results if the participants do not come to the table ready to take action. For all the seminars and policy papers, it has been the lack of politics that has hamstrung progress on development. Leaders needed to rise to the challenge of 1 billion people going to bed hungry every night. Instead they ‘noted’ the problem of chronic malnutrition, preferring to save their ‘deep concern’ for protectionism.

There were chinks of light. On food security a new initiative called ‘AgResults’ will help drive private sector investment into innovative agricultural solutions, helping fund technological solutions to problems that are too often ignored. The anti-corruption work of the G20 will also continue after it was given an extra two years by leaders, despite its mandate being up. However, agreement could not be found on one its acid test issues: agreeing a global standard for transparency in the extractive industries. Inertia continues to trump progress.

Some campaign groups celebrate this demise. They see summits as part of the analogue age of policy-making, but macro-problems on the scale of global poverty require macro-solutions. It wasn’t an accident that G8 summits played critical roles in debt relief and increasing aid to Africa.

There is still hope. The Mexicans had an unfairly short gap between their summit and Cannes late last year. They point to crucial meetings in November where the G20 development and anti-corruption agendas will be discussed away from the intensity of a leaders’ summit. There is also momentum on food security and nutrition, with modest progress at both the Camp David G8 and Los Cabos G20. Ambition levels now need to be raised. Political bravery and leadership is required to pull it off. Next year Putin and Cameron take the reins of the G20 and G8 respectively. They must show that bringing the most powerful people in the world together can still deliver results for the most powerless.