G20: Where does the Global South fit in?

The G20 is a small club of developed and emerging States setting the global economic agenda—how useful can it be for activists in the Global South?

Photo by iStockphoto.com/theasis.

The Group of 20 (G20) countries began as the Group of Seven with Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. It grew to include a handful of countries from the Global South: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa ,Turkey among others.

The multilateral forum draws attention as it accounts for 85 per cent of world GDP and two-thirds of its population. Initially, attendance at G20 summits was limited to the finance ministers and central bank governors of members when it was established in 1999. Today the G20 is a dynamic forum, drawing on perspectives and expertise beyond its member governments. It therefore confers with a set of engagement groups: civil society organizations from the G20 nations that represent different sectors of society. Each engagement group is independent and is chaired by one of their national members. It develops a set of policy recommendations that are formally submitted to the G20 ahead of the summit. The current G20 engagement groups are the following: Business 20 (B20), Civil 20 (C20), Labour 20 (L20), Science 20 (S20), Think 20 (T20), Women 20 (W20) and Youth 20 (Y20).

Activist Riska Koopman, who works with the Economic Justice Network in South Africa, attended the C20 forum in Buenos Aires in August 2018. The FES Connect team spoke to Koopman about her key take aways from the proceedings as an activist from the Global South. 


The Economic Justice Network links civil society organizations and grassroots movements to international forums, including G20 meetings. Yet, critique against the forum prevails that it lacks the legitimacy of the United Nations to determine global economic governance.  Why do you work in this space?

South Africans are fortunate to have our country as a member, as the G20 is a critical forum for agenda-setting. It allows our representatives to push for South Africa’s developmental agenda within global economic structures. There are also other emerging economies that have penetrated the space, which has allowed for more balanced outcomes of the forum. This is an important extension of membership.

"Citizens, especially of the Global South, have continuously borne the brunt of bad policy-making at international levels. After feeling the effects on their pockets, they have called out the poor developmental agendas and are eager to be involved within policy-making."

Global South actors, for the longest time, have been left out of conversations surrounding global, political and economic decision-making. For civil society exclusion, often the reason is that experts and government officials are under the false assumption that citizens are not informed on international relations sufficiently to engage in these issues or citizens are not interested in engaging with these issues. However, this is not true. Citizens, especially of the Global South, have continuously borne the brunt of bad policy-making at international levels. After feeling the effects on their pockets, they have called out the poor developmental agendas and are eager to be involved within policy-making. Afterall, citizens are entitled to do so because they are the beneficiaries of these policies.

Africa as a continent is largely left out of G20 membership. But many of the issues discussed in the C20 and G20 meetings resonate with African activists. What is one issue you worked on through the C20?

I attended the C20 working group on illicit financial flows. For Africa, illicit financial flows pose a grave problem. The continent is losing up to 50 billion US dollars annually to illicit financial flows, which are basically revenues, profits and money illegally siphoned out of African economies. Corruption is often painted as the “big bad wolf” stealing Africa’s development. However, corruption only plays a small enabling role to illicit financial flows. In fact, corruption accounts up to 3 per cent of the 50 billion US dollars, whereas mis-invoicing, especially by multinational corporations, makes up the bulk of illicit financial flows. Nevertheless, this is largely swept under the carpet.

Global decision-makers have done little to recognize the role of multinationals in illicit financial flows or even attempt to address this. Civil society activists in the C20 therefore call for the adoption of illicit financial flows to be framed as a human rights issue, because the loss of this income impedes governments from providing basic services, such as water infrastructure, sanitation and education to their citizens.

Issues such as illicit financial flows are important for civil society. But is there space for civil society to engage on what can be done about it?

The G20 countries are well recognized for the populations they represent and the issues within the forum are relevant to African activists, but I found it problematic and extremely worrying that I was only one of five Africans representing civil society interests at the C20.

"Ultimately, we as civil society are only as powerful as the collaborations we make in this norm-setting process."

In the working session on shrinking civic space, I heard that social media platforms are clamped down in Russia and Iran, where Telegram was recently banned. Or as in the case of Uganda, a social media tax has been imposed on citizens, restricting their ability to speak openly. Furthermore, the loss of development aid has directly hindered civil society organizations from the watchdog role of tracking government and multinational corporations. This shows that, while the domestic space may be constrained, forums like the G20 provide an alternative option for civil society to accumulate power to check these entities.

Essentially, multilateral forums like the G20 are problematic because it is made up of perpetrators and victims sitting at the same table (depending on the issue, their role changes). But it is still critical to safeguard them, to continue pushing civil society agendas and penetrating the space. Ultimately, we as civil society are only as powerful as the collaborations we make in this norm-setting process.


For more information on South African participation in the G20 process, contact Tamara Naidoo of FES South Africa.

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