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Behind the Scenes of the G20: a Substantive Process Leads to a Significant Statement

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By Oshani Perera, July 24, 2017

It’s easy to be distracted by politics and protests when evaluating the outcome of the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg. After months of working behind the scenes to help develop recommendations for G20 leaders, I can tell you that it is a substantive process that led to a significant statement.

Headline outcomes ranged from converging thinking on heightening security, to the diverging stance of the United States on climate change, and an acknowledgement that the benefits of international trade and investment have not been shared widely enough.

These headlines miss the bigger picture: the G20 has made a major commitment to advancing sustainable development.

We applaud the G20 stance that the “Paris Agreement on Climate Change is irreversible” and we greatly welcome the alignment of the G20 Action Plan with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Indeed, a subsection of the G20 Communique is dedicated to “Leading the Way Towards Sustainable Development.”[1] 

Much has been said about the outcomes of the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg, which ranged from converging thinking on heightening security, to the diverging stance of the United States on climate change, and the acknowledgement that the benefits of international trade and investment have not been shared widely enough. We are encouraged by the focus on resource efficiency, food security, water sustainability and marine litter. The G20 Communique makes particular reference to sustainable global supply chains, calling for the “implementation of labour, social and environmental standards and human rights in line with internationally recognised frameworks."[2] It also calls for more concerted attention to the opportunities offered by digital and technological innovation (from financial technology to genome research) while acknowledging that the regulations needed to curb associated tail risks are lagging behind.

Many of these topics are appearing in the G20 dialogue for the first time. Indeed—under the leadership of Germany, the 2017 Summit marks the first time that the G20 agenda interlocks with sustainable development in such a concerted manner.

I am privileged to have served the 2017 Business 20 (B20), an official G20 dialogue with the global business community that developed concrete, actionable recommendations to lead the global economy towards a sustainable future. As part of the Financing Growth & Infrastructure Working Group, I attended meetings, wrote statements, agreed and disagreed with many speakers, sat in on many long phone calls and joined several conferences. I experienced first hand the interactions, the positioning and the posturing that formed the all-powerful B20 recommendations to the G20 leaders. When businesses speak, governments do listen. I met and debated with the B20 and the G20 Sherpas and shared their preoccupation with the EU debt crises, the USD 90 trillion global infrastructure deficit, the migrating millions and their common but differentiated responsibilities under the Paris Accord. (I also sat on the 2017 Think 20 [T20] and regret that I could not engage more concretely in this process)

These interactions made me acutely sensitive to the value of critical thinking and informed dialogue. They made me realize that there is a point to all this conversation. I was one of many who had previously questioned the value of the G20, and even dismissed it as merely a party for 20. This misguided perception is partly founded in the fact that the media focuses more on the politics and personal interactions amongst the leaders rather than on the substance being debated.  This is a pity, as it hides just how much value the G20 process creates along the way.  

The G20 works through a series of working groups and task forces that are coordinated and facilitated by the country that holds the G20 Chair. This Chair rotates every year, and there is no permanent secretariat.

 In 2017, under the Chairmanship of Germany, the G20 processes included:

  • Seven formal dialogues and summits in the form of the B20, T20, L20, C20, W20, and S20.[3]  
  • 14 Agreed Documents.[4]
  • Series of specialized Minister’s meetings. This included the central bank governors’ meetings and meetings of ministers in charge of health, labour, agriculture, finance and foreign affairs.[5]
  • Twelve G20 working groups covering a host of topics including Green Finance and Sustainability.[6]

All these processes convened a host of parallel gatherings. Their intellectual output was divvied up in the form of working groups, task forces, study groups and more. They brought together hundreds of intelligent, thoughtful and articulate people from all over the world. Together, they represented every sector, every discipline, every industry and every specialization. Over 12 months they met in person and liaised electronically. They debated, researched, did business, negotiated deals, wrote articles, held webinars and financed films and theatre productions. The G20 provided us with a unique opportunity to create synergies, appreciate our differences and find ways to make global societies’ work for the greater good. While this all culminated in the G20 summit—and the media focused on the G20 Communique and the G20 Finance Ministers Communique—the collaborative and cohesive work leading up to the G20 summit was almost invisible. This is a missed opportunity, for these processes are worthy of praise and recognition.

The value created by the G20 most certainly lies in its process, which demonstrates the value of globalization and why it is worth fighting for.

The process shows that national and local development policies need not be at odds with global markets, and help leaders and stakeholders find common ground to agree to disagree and so find consensus. Many argue that the latter is the downfall of the G20. They argue that all this talk to arrive at a consensus leads to little action. Indeed, I was one of these critics, but now I know better. I realize that all this talking is necessary to find synergies, to create scale, and to determine the trade-offs. Only then can we make globalization work for more people that it currently does.


[1] The 2017 G20 Summit Declaration. Posted at https://www.g20.org/Webs/G20/EN/Home/home_node.html

[2] The 2017 G20 Summit Declaration. Posted at https://www.g20.org/Webs/G20/EN/Home/home_node.html

[3] The fill list of the G20 non-governmental dialogues is posted at https://www.g20.org/Webs/G20/EN/G20/Civil_society/civil_society_node.html

[4] The full list of agreed documents can be consulted at https://www.g20.org/Webs/G20/EN/G20/Summit_documents/summit_documents_node.html

[5] The full list of G20 Ministers meetings can be consulted at https://www.g20.org/Webs/G20/EN/G20/meeting_ministers/meetings_ministers_node.html

[6] The full list of G20 Working Groups can be consulted at https://www.g20.org/Webs/G20/EN/G20/meeting_ministers/meetings_ministers_node.html