Spotlight G-20 & Rio+20: The G-20 Casts a Long Shadow over Rio

Peter Riggs, guest blogger

Part of the Triple Crisis Spotlight Rio+20 and Spotlight G-20 series.

What is the relation between the Rio+20 Earth Summit and the upcoming G-20 summit in Mexico?   These two events occur back-to-back, and both are at the ‘heads of state’ level.  This month should be an opportunity for serious international course-correction, right?

A year ago, Nancy Alexander (Heinrich Boell Foundation) and I started looking at the evolving agendas and goals for these two meetings, exploring where they were congruent and where they clashed.  While the G-20 struggled with its core mission of coordinating global financial responses, it also made a serious push into development finance. So we looked at the G-20’s Development Action Plan (DAP) and asked how it could do more to support the sustainable development goals of Rio+20.  Mostly, however, the DAP reflects the G-20’s strong orientation towards finance-ministry thinking—the use of public capital to buy down private risk, and a soft spot for infrastructure projects with big swinging secondary markets attached.

Our paper “The G20: Playing Outside the Big Tent” can be downloaded here.

Now, it gives the G-20 far too much corporeality to suggest it is capable of acting as a body.  During 2008-2009 it coordinated a fiscal stimulus and last year it did address an earlier phase of the European financial crisis—mostly via the skillful browbeating of Greece, by a French president who is now history.  But it’s not clear what the G-20 can do now—not clear you can browbeat Spain, the EU’s fourth largest economy, in the same way.  We overestimate the G-20 by thinking it can play a stronger institutional role in addressing market volatility.  It doesn’t have the tools.  In a similar vein, G-20 nations haven’t moved on their promised elimination of fossil fuel subsidies.  Those are actions to be taken at home, mostly by parliaments.

Moreover, the Mexican ambition to build a grand consensus relating to “sustainable development, green growth, and the fight against climate change” – one of its five Summit agenda items – has largely fallen flat.  What we will get, most likely, is the launch of some Green Growth Alliance by the G-20 and its private-sector partner B-20.  The G-20’s real tool is paradigmatic—its often unconscious but nonetheless relentless promotion of a finance-sector-led worldview.  If we overestimate the G-20 as a body, we perhaps underestimate the far-reaching impact that G-20 processes can have, even when not much comes out of them.  The paper describes how negotiations in the UN Committee on Food Security broke down last year because of the unwillingness of some parties to breach the policy line set out in an earlier statement by the G-20 Agriculture Ministers—an example of the G-20’s ‘chilling effect’ on negotiations in a United Nations setting.

In the realm of finance, that paradigmatic tool is being used to round up investment in infrastructure.  The infrastructure is for pipeline and transport corridors. One doesn’t detect a strong anti-poverty focus.  Rather, within the G-20 the belief still reigns that facilitating greater fossil fuel, mineral and agro-industrial commodity development will lead to development.  In contrast to the UN climate talks stalemated across a north-south divide, the traditional ‘G7’ countries and ‘Rising Nine’ nations and major oil exporters that make up the G-20 are united around and complicit in the creation of grandiose infrastructure plans that will lead us inevitably into a plus-three-degrees world, and all the climate chaos that implies. But for domestic development purposes, this G-20 setting has been very useful to members building their power as regional trade and investment hubs.

We will see some celebration of achievement at Rio+20, but mostly civil society will be playing defense.  Defending what has been accomplished, yes; but also playing defense against those who want to cram ‘sustainable development’ into a financialization-led Green Economy bodysuit.  Much of the impulse for that financialization comes out of the G-20.  And so despite its lack of formal accomplishment to date, the G-20 bears close watching, due to the size of its ambitions and its ability to mobilize finance for mega-infrastructure projects.

The G-20 is casting a shadow over Rio.  Clearly there should have been much more coordination between the two events.  Going beyond just ‘defense’, we ask how might we help develop a different kind of ambition at the G-20.  If we are able to shift its paradigm, and get it focused instead on deeper notions of sustainability…what would that look like, and how could that connect up to what’s playing out at Rio?  Those are the questions that interest us in the paper.

Peter Riggs was a Program Officer at the Ford Foundation, and before that at Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and between those two gigs he started and ran the Forum on Democracy and Trade.

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