The G20 in Seoul - Summit or Abyss?

On Nov. 11, the Group of 20 (G20), representing the interests of countries who collectively produce over 85 percent of global wealth, will gather in Seoul, South Korea for its fifth summit.

The G20 giants, now including India, Russia, China and Brazil, comprise the world's mightiest international economies. Next week, they will spend two days deliberating the allocation of the world's financial resources.

In response to a growing controversy regarding the legitimacy and competence of G20, the New York-based Century Foundation hosted a discussion in late October featuring four eminent experts on international economics and policy, entitled 'G20 Summitry and Seoul: Policy Powerhouse or Multilateral Talk Shop?'

The discussion revolved around several contentious issues, including the dynamic relationship between the G20 and the United Nations.

Ever since U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed the G20 as the "focal point for international coordination", relegating the U.N.'s mandate to human rights, gender empowerment, good governance and peacekeeping, many actors have expressed concern that the surging clout of G20 will render redundant certain arms of the U.N.

"There is the danger that the G20 will be perceived as a substitute for the U.N.," said Shashi Tharoor, former U.N. undersecretary-general and Indian ex-minister of state for external affairs. "But that will not acceptable. We see these as very distinct forums, and we are very strongly committed to the U.N."

When asked why Africa, a continent constituting over 1 billion citizens of the world, has no representative within the G20, Tharoor answered, "Well, it's a bit like Pandora's box - once you open it, you cannot close it again very easily."

"Such representation might ruin the so-far effective process of the G20," he added.

Stewart Patrick, director of the programme on international institutions and global governance for the Council on Foreign Relations, presented a policy paper entitled "G20 and the United States: Opportunities for More Effective Multilateralism".

In it, Patrick states quite categorically, "The U.N [is] dominated by minor players of little economic consequence and encumbered by slow and fragmented decision-making."

"The G20 is a more nimble organisation," he argued, "unencumbered by bureaucracy."

The perception of the U.N. as being hindered by equal representation from member states was a common strand running through the discussion, sandwiched, nonetheless, by a staunch commitment to the U.N.'s continued existence as the premier international political body.

But while certain experts and economists remain optimistic about G20's potential to successfully manage the world's finances, others have been skeptical, sometimes even downright cynical.

Earlier this year, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre accused the G20 of being an arbitrary, self-appointed group with no clear mandate and thus unencumbered by accountability, calling it "the greatest setback for the international community since World War II."

Støre was outraged by the lack of representation of the Nordic states, which collectively comprise the eighth largest economy in the world.

"Norwegians are the biggest contributors to the international development programmes of the United Nations," he noted. "Our future fund is the second largest in the world. So our experiences could be valuable in discussions about a reform of the global financial world."

Støre is not the first, and will certainly not be the last, to voice such strong opposition to the grouping. Various international scholars, academics and financiers of excluded countries have long been dubious, if not openly hostile, to the creeping dominance and lack of representation at the G20.

According to Jayati Ghosh, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, "The G20 has completely upstaged the U.N. and made it marginal in terms of both geopolitics and international economic relations."

"Despite a few seats at the high table for developing countries, it is still quite clear who calls the shots globally," Ghosh told IPS.

Despite repeated assurances from the G20 about making gains in bridging the North-South divide, figures from the ground in countries like India and China highlight evidence to the contrary.

Ghosh lambasted India on this score, insisting that it needs to "look beyond the narrow interests of its own elites and recognise how much it - or most of its population - has in common with most of the developing world."

"Without generating greater Southern solidarity," Ghosh said, "and reflecting broadly Southern interests, [India] is not likely to be very effective, especially because its share of the global economy is still very small."

The only point of convergence between critics and promoters of the G20 appears to be on the issue of the financial crisis in 2009, when swift action was taken in order to bring about global stability.

But here again, the figures of the bailout tell a different tale.

According to a report by Oxfam in late 2009, the sum pledged for the bailout amounted to $8.4 trillion. Figures taken from the World Bank during the same time period showed that the total sum required to lift the 1.5 billion people living on less than $1 a day out of abject poverty was $173 billion. Thus the resources expended on the bailout were sufficient to end world poverty for a full half century.

Perhaps the most accurate reflection of G20's standing within the global community is visible in the steadfast protests that take place twice a year in the city that hosts the summit.

The most recent summit meeting in Toronto earlier this year saw tens of thousands of protesters on the streets, infuriated by the expenditure of $1.2 billion of their tax dollars on the summit's lavish proceedings.

According to an article in the Toronto Star, G20 representatives spent a total of 24 hours in meetings. This works out to about $50 million an hour, or $833,000 a minute.

The Seoul summit approaches at a time of immense, global economic upheaval, and critics say it is vital that the G20 adapts itself to the new financial climate.

"We no longer live in the 19th century, a time when the major powers met and redrew the map of the world," said Støre. "No one needs a new Congress of Vienna."

[Source: By Kanya D'Almeida, IPS, United Nations, 04Nov10]

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