After a Chinese Visit, Questions about the G20: One Circumstance and Two Problems

Eduardo Gudynas, Guest Blogger

Until a few days ago, I had planned on contributing to the Spotlight G20 series by analyzing the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to several South American countries. During the Rio +20 Conference, he met Dilma Rousseff from Brazil, and then he traveled to Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. In every capital city, Prime Minister Jiabao negotiated and signed many agreements. He was interested in buying minerals, hydrocarbon and agri-food products, as well as financing transport infrastructure, such as harbors and railroads, to ensure access to such resources.

China has become one of the major commercial partners of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay (all of them members of the Common Market of the South – Mercosur). In these close relationships, agreements are no longer as eye-catching as silences are. For example, everybody shuts up when the huge financial assistance from Beijing does not include the “annoying” social and environmental safeguards. In exchange, South American progressive governments say nothing about human rights.

In reviewing these and other aspects of the Chinese visit to the Southern Cone, I found that they were not related to the G20 Summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. At least for me (from civil society and from the South), the G20 seems to be far away, only as one political forum among many other.

There is no doubt about the importance of the G20, but it seems that the Group is focused on issues such as finance and, specially, the European crisis. It is also true that its decisions (when they reach agreements) would affect many actors. However, it is important to ask whether the G20 is currently the most important international forum, even superior to institutions such as the WTO or the IMF, and whether it is relevant in all countries. As there are 173 countries non-member of the G20, this is not a minor issue.

Some argue that the relevance of the G20 is based on its control of finance and global trade. But in these areas there already are institutions such as the IMF and the WTO, which suffer from serious problems but include all countries. Others point out to the G20, due to its role in development aid, although there are also International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and Regional Financial Institutions (RFIs) for this purpose. The Chinese visit to South America showed that it is more useful to redouble pressure on these institutions than on the G20.

It also has been said that, since some emerging economies participate in the G20, they would be “regional leaders”, which would represent other voices from the South. For instance, in Latin America it is almost always assumed that Mexico and Brazil would be the “leaders” that represent, respectively, Central and South America. This is wrong. In the case of Brazil, the government does not coordinate its foreign policy with its neighbors, not only on the G20 agenda but on many other issues. Brazilian South American neighbors, in turn, dissociate themselves from positions from Brasilia. There is no denying that the G20 creates even more unbalances in international relationships, justifies asymmetries within regions and erodes the United Nation’s role.

To influence large economies, it may be necessary to claim more reforms and transparency within the United Nations. Issues such as food should not be in G20’s hands. Instead, the rebuilding of the FAO should be considered, and so on in each case.

However, the G20 continues to be given great attention, even from civil society organizations. In my opinion, this has to do with, at least, one circumstance and two problems. The circumstance is that, to many organizations from industrialized countries, especially European ones, the G20 is an enormously important political forum.

But, the G20 is also a target because social movements lack new ideas about alternatives to globalization and its institutionalism. Could it be fatigue? This is the first problem. Social movements have many criticisms of globalization, but there are not so many certainties and agreements on how to formalize a different global order. Should we count on some sort of “united nations” or not? How to overcome the G20? As responses are not clear, we continue to lobby fora such as the G20.

A second problem is that, despite the triple crises, the conventional idea of growth is alive. A radical and definitive attack that ends the old development ideology has not still taken place. Then, responses search for a “true”, “effective”, “human”, “sustainable”, Chinese or Brazilian development alternative (each reader can use its favorite adjective). But these are instrumental reforms under the large umbrella of the Western idea of development. Under these circumstances, there is no better place to fix global capitalism than the G20.

In my opinion, two steps are needed to cope with the G20. The first one is to review its real relevance while the second one is to admit that there are alternative exits from the current paradigm. But these are stories for other posts.

Eduardo Gudynas is senior analyst at the Latin American Center on Social Ecology (CLAES), based in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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