Harper's G20 Agenda or the World's?

As we go to press, the G8 and G20 meetings of government leaders are taking place in central Ontario. The global financial crisis will dominate the discussions—the clear intention of the host leader, Canada’s Stephen Harper—but these summits are meant to be broadening, rather than narrowing, their idea of what constitutes economic health.

By Steacy Henry

On September 25th, 1999 in Washington DC, the Group of Seven (G7) announced the formal creation of the G20. The new G20 was created as “a new mechanism for informal dialogue in the framework of the Bretton Woods institutional system, to broaden the dialogue on key economic and financial policy issues among systemically significant economies and to promote cooperation to achieve stable and sustainable world growth that benefits all.”

The nineteen countries that compose the G20 are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Republic of Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the USA, plus the European Union. This group of states, comprising approximately two-thirds of the global population, accounts for 90 percent of global economic output, and 80 percent of world trade.

Back in 2008, the G20 leaders convened their first meeting in Washington DC. There they developed coordinated efforts to the onset of a global economic meltdown, and initiated a harmonized response to mitigate its effects. The Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy outlined measures designed to stabilize the international economy, suggesting that state actions reject protectionism, and produce coordinated stimulus packages. The end result constituted the most comprehensive support program for the financial sector seen in modern times.

This initial summit was followed by summits in London (in April 2009) and in Pittsburgh (September 2009), at which leaders designated the G20 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation. The interventions planned and implemented by the G20 at these meetings have aided reforms of international financial institutions, and have mitigated the impact of the recession on the global economy. These processes have encouraged and assisted a more expedient transition to economic recovery around the globe.

Recovery and New Beginnings

The G20 Toronto summit provides an opportunity to build on these previous discussions and commitments. The theme of Toronto’s G20 Summit is Recovery and New Beginnings, with a focus on recovery from the global financial crisis, and on furthering the implementation of commitments previously agreed upon at past G20 summits.

The agenda of the G8 and G20 is for the most part already predetermined. However, the hosting country has the advantage of shaping public discourse, managing pre-summit international publicity, and extending special invitations to a select number of countries and individuals outside of the general pre-established membership.

At the beginning of 2010, Prime Minister Harper was poised to focus the G8/G20 meetings on post-recovery economic goals, presenting Canada as a leader in overcoming the recent recession. His agenda was to discuss how the international economy might be reshaped after the recession has been overcome. However, the recent fiscal crisis, prompted by debt-laden Greece’s near-default, is likely to bring an aura of alarm and a sense of urgency to the international economic forum. This atmosphere may have leaders focused on avoiding another downward slide into recession, rather than post-recovery economic goals, as Harper had hoped.

With European leaders scrambling to contain the damage from Greece’s debt crisis, the financial crises facing the European Union will almost certainly dominate the discussions at the upcoming financial summits. However, Harper is not laying full blame for Greece’s economic woes at the feet of the financial sector. He blames the recent crisis on the mismanagement of fiscal resources by governments, saying, “The fundamental crisis here is not in the financial sector. It is in the finances of certain governments.”

The United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon would like to see Harper change his tone—the financial crisis must not overhadow the developed world’s obligations to the poor—and include issues on the G8/G20’s agenda that are outside of the economic realm.

Climate Change off the Agenda?

The Canadian government was criticized by the United Nations for its record on climate change. Canada’s unwillingness to discuss climate issues at the economic summits is readily apparent. Still, Ban hopes this position will change, stating “I urge Canada to comply fully with the targets set out by the Kyoto protocol.”

Ban also pushed for Canada to honor the commitments it previously made to reduce greenhouse gas, through targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately, it is unlikely Harper will take this advice; he has said that everything at the G8 and G20 meetings outside of strictly economic issues amounts to nothing but “sideshows.” Moreover, an advisory panel has advised him to play down climate change at the G20.

If climate change is not addressed at the G8 and G20 discussions, it sends a message to the world that environmental issues are irrelevant to economic matters. The need for Western aid to developing countries will only continue expanding in countries such as those in which new economic and environmental refugees are produced.

Harper has outlined an international aid package designed to improve maternal health in developing countries, and he plans to garner support for this proposal at the G8 and G20 summits. The problem is that Harper’s approach to maternal and child health in developing countries has been badly tarnished already by widespread criticism. The criticisms stem from the Conservative government’s refusal to include funding for safer abortions in developing countries as part of the aid package.

Ban Ki-moon did not comment on the abortion controversy. Instead, he lauded Canada’s record of commitment to the UN, its extensive involvement in multiple peacekeeping missions, and the assistance Canada has been providing to struggling countries such as Haiti and Afghanistan.

Africa is the continent with the highest average fertility rate, and will benefit from whatever maternal aid program is decided at the G20 summit. Harper has invited Ethiopia and Malawi to attend, as the G20 has only one permanent African member country, South Africa, making further representation (if only as invitees) very welcome. African governments have worked to earn their place at the summit, by reining in deficits, opening markets more to foreign investment, and reducing reliance on public sectors.

Making Trade Work for Africa

At the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, a vaguely worded commitment was made to “make trade work for Africa.” A 2009 review by the ONE Campaign—the coalition of aid advocacy groups co-founded by musician-activist Bono—found that no G8 member state had an established plan to deliver on this commitment. Worse still, donor countries such as France, Italy, and Germany have reduced aid commitments to Africa due to some near-sighted decisions made during recent economic downturns.

Members of the G8 have already indicated that they will focus on coordinating the efforts of central banks. The G7 central banks (that is, the G8 minus Russia) have already committed to redeploy bilateral swap arrangements amoung the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England, the Bank of Canada, and the Swiss National Bank. The Bank of Japan will likely adopt similar measures. The G7 advocates that these coordinated efforts will strongly contribute to international financial stability, recovery and economic growth worldwide.

The rising tensions between South Korea and North Korea also threaten to distract the agenda of the economic summits. The Republic of Korea, G20 Chair for 2010, will host the fifth summit this November in Seoul. Surely South Korea will use a portion of its time at the G20 meetings to use diplomatic avenues of conflict management, and will likely try to focus other world leaders on commitments to further economic sanctions against North Korea if current tensions increase.

Expanding the G20’s Scope

Through the inclusion of civil society in its summit discussions and government policy recommendations, the current trend of easing the criterion for membership in the G20 could continue. The G8 will maintain its core membership as a central control and directive influence over the wider group of the G20; at the same time, it will likely continue expanding its scope and institutional role.

This may be accomplished by continuing to increase global participation and representation through offering membership to states and members of civil society outside of the group. The G20 may eventually become an institution capable of promoting positive change and economic stability in global markets. As the G20 continues to evolve, so will its agenda.

For now, the G8 and G20 remain primarily focused on influencing global financial markets, and offering a forum for government officials to collaborate and integrate economic policies. If the G20 continues to expand its membership, however, it will likewise expand the group’s purview. In time, we may see the G8 and G20 become agents of change outside of solely economic spheres.

Steacy Henry is a University of Western Ontario graduate currently working as a social science researcher in Victoria BC.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2010, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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