Do we need the G20?

The G20 Seoul Summit is taking place in Korea. The agenda in Seoul is much the same – global economic recovery, strong sustainable balanced growth, the international financial regulatory system. Sound familiar?

The previous summit held in Toronto was the fourth meeting of G-20 leaders to discuss the world economy, the ongoing world recession and the global financial system – austerity measures, bail-outs, sovereign debt, bank tax, open markets, economic stimulus, transaction tax, etc. There was a pledge to undertake a series of steps to ensure the current financial crisis was never repeated.

In his National Post article, John Greenwood outlines how the a 2008 (Washington Summit) 5-step action plan has largely been a bust. Much of the progress is now offset by the imminent currency war that leaders are nimbly stepping around.

The fact is that consensus simply is non-existent.
There is no united global force to tackle world economic and financial challenges. G20 consensus is a myth. Instead, G-20 leaders usually emerge from their two-day summit with vague pronouncements of common problems which can only be solved collectively. “We live in a truly global economy.” “We are all in this together. “What one does affects the other 19 nations.”

In Canada, the post Toronto G20 news coverage has been dominated not by the accomplishments of G20 leaders but by the hundreds of investigations of police brutality, police officers not wearing their name tags and the outlandish costs of hosting such a summit.

What about that pledge to eliminate fossil fuel corporate subsidies? Here again, each country acts based on its national circumstances. This is a euphemism for “not in the foreseeable future.”

Whatever happened to climate change which received only brief attention at the G20 and G8 meetings last fall in Pittsburgh and in Toronto? It’s not even on the radar screen in Seoul. Kim Carstensen, of WWF Global Climate Initiative, explained it this way:

“The greenest thing about the G20 is its ability to reuse and recycle earlier commitments. This summit could have been the beginning of real action towards a clean, efficient and resilient economy but all we got is some nice words about green economy and a recycled statement on fossil fuel subsidies.”

And then there is the litany of broken promises from previous meetings. At last year’s Italian-hosted G8 summit, the leaders committed to a new $22 billion fund for food security. So far, only $880 million has come forward. Similarly, the G-8 has fallen $14 billion short on its 2005 aid pledge of $25 billion to Africa.

So the question needs to be asked. Why do these summits continue at great expense to host nations? Since little is accomplished, it is becoming increasingly clear that substance has been replaced by symbolism. A retreat of world leaders under ramped up security holds the promise of a meeting of the minds to solve some pressing global problems. Will this happen is Seoul? Don’t hold your breath!

The best that can be said is that the process allows world leaders to come face to face to dialogue and attempt to understand one another. It is the process and not the substance that takes on a special importance.

More importantly, these summits provide opportunity for protests by groups and individuals. Protesters show a remarkable range of pressing issues when compared to the world leaders – poverty, the ravages of aids, world hunger, shortage of drinking water, the environment, renewable energy, global warming, climate change, population control, violence and terrorism.

Some would argue that protesters detract from summit meetings by focusing attention on what goes on in the streets rather than what goes on inside in the meeting rooms. Television captures the violence such at the burning of police cars and the arrest of hundreds of protesters. People around the world are angry and expect their leaders to do better.

However, this is a necessary and integral element of the entire process. To remain silent in the face of inaction by world leaders on some of the major problems facing our planet is unacceptable. Silence is not an option. In the words of the great American author and poet,
“To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men”.
So yes, we need the G-20 because it provides a process for world leaders to focus on global challenges and gain a mutual understanding of each other’s domestic problems and issues. It is a showcase of a community of democratic nations coming together, promoting inclusiveness and transparency, at least in theory.

We also need the world summit forum as a vehicle for protesters to keep world leaders in check.

Now if only world leaders could learn to listen. Otherwise, the summit exercise will continue to be hollow and meaningless to the vast majority of engaged world citizens.


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