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Questions Mounting over G20 Accountability

WASHINGTON, Jun 19 2012 (IPS) - As leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) countries head into a second day of talks at the grouping’s seventh summit this week in Los Cabos, Mexico, calls are strengthening for a new debate around the group’s lack of accountability.

“The G20 has liberally imposed itself over other institutions to mandate those other institutions to take on its agenda,” Gawain Kripke, a researcher with Oxfam America, said in Washington on Monday.

“That’s potentially a problem, when you have this fundamentally unauthorised organisation setting the agenda and work plans for other institutions that do at least have bylaws and so forth.”

Kripke pointed, in particular, to the example of the current debate over a set of reforms being pushed through the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These reforms, which in part would see developing countries significantly increase their voting powers within the Fund, have been spearheaded by the G20 as a signature issue.

While these reforms are widely seen as positive, the fact that the G20 is a non-institutionalised grouping – it lacks a secretariat, for instance, and operates largely on the whim of rotating host countries – is worrying for many, particularly as the group’s scope has widened significantly in recent years.

The G20, which calls itself an “informal forum”, was created in 1998 by the finance ministers of 20 of the world’s most developed countries. In particular, the group included the fast-rising “middle-income” countries such as India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, Russia and China.

For the first decade of its existence, though, the G20 was of little relevance. “No one cared about the G20 – no one wanted to work with them,” Bernardo Lischinsky, a senior advisor at the IMF, told a panel discussion here on Monday, at an event organised by New Rules for Global Finance, a Washington non-governmental organisation (NGO), and the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

In the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, former U.S. President George W. Bush made a surprise call on the G20 to come together for an urgent meeting in Washington. The group was tasked with devising a coordinated response to the unfolding events.

While that leadership proved critical then, Lischinsky said, the G20 has since expanded into numerous other areas. “I think they need to slow down, to go back to what they were doing before the crisis,” he said. “They need to focus on strengthening other institutions.”

Shadowy overreach?

Today, the G20 has expanded its number of working groups to ten. Beyond the group’s core focus of finance, these groups take on a broad swath of issues, including development, food security, trade and the “social dimension of globalisation”.

Yet the agendas, negotiations and even composition of these groups have remained shrouded in mystery.

“There is a whole second G20 agenda on development that gets absolutely no headlines,” said Nancy Alexander, director of the Economic Governance Programme at the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Washington.

“The G20 has created an action plan for development in all 173 countries that are not part of the G20, with no mention of issues such as climate change or equity. This plan does not request or suggest, but mandates actions for 25 national and regional organisations.”

The website of the Economic Governance Programme is considered a treasure trove of documents – otherwise impossible to find – relating to the G20’s inner workings. She added that in simply trying to obtain information on the membership of the development working group, she was turned down by four governments citing “confidentiality”.

“This is wrong – this stifles democracy,” she argued. “The G20’s role should be to give suggestions to qualified bodies. We need to have a discussion on whether the G20 is actually accountable to more representative bodies – the U.N., say, or the international financial institutions.”

Few people realise that the G20 is “actually far less accountable than the IMF”, she pointed out.

The lack of accountability can be particularly problematic given the degree of influence that large-scale corporate interests have recently built up over the G20.

The new working group on transparency, for instance, is comprised entirely of people from the banking industry, according to Jo Marie Griesgraber, the executive director of New Rules for Global Finance. Similarly, until recently, U.S. participation at the G20 was solely through the commerce department.

Los Cabos summit

Monday’s events in Los Cabos were arguably dominated by the so-called B20 – the “business 20” – while Tuesday morning started with a breakfast for heads of state and select business leaders.

Even within the group’s core focus on global finance, critics point out an overly heavy reliance on dogmatic positions. “In times of crisis you need a forum to address macroeconomic coordination,” said Thea Lee, a labour organiser in Washington.

“Unfortunately, the G20 has often come up with the wrong solutions, with an undue focus on neoliberal fiscal solutions – for instance, promoting more austerity when the problem today is a lack of demand.”

In the run-up to the Los Cabos summit, many have pointed out that the space for civil society engagement has very limited, a situation exacerbated by the high level of secrecy.

“The G20 is at heart a negotiating forum, and we have very little sense of how those negotiations proceed,” warned Oxfam’s Kripke.

“We have no understanding of countries’ intentions, positions – the process isn’t subject to public discussion and as such civil society can’t offer any help. Ultimately, that’s less likely to produce a good outcome.”

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