Smaller Developing Countries and the G20: Ensuring their Voices Are Heard

May 14, 2010

Born amid turmoil, first as a forum for finance ministers and central bankers in the aftermath of the Asian financial meltdown in 1997 and now as a meeting of heads of government during the current global economic crisis, the G20 must balance twin imperatives — to be broadly representative of the global community yet efficient in decision making and implementation.  This background is important, because the G20’s current membership in effect reflects the countries “that mattered” to resolve a financial crisis over a decade ago.  A grouping more representative of a global governance system devoted to current circumstances will have to deal with the questions of perceived European over-representation and the exclusion of Egypt and Nigeria.  However that issue is resolved, small developing countries are not going to be part of the membership discussion.  For them, the goal must be to ensure that their concerns are addressed in whatever configuration of the G20 emerges in coming years.

Group Configuration

A number of proposals, all imperfect, have been advanced to deal with this gap in representation, as fully one-third of the world's population (albeit representing only 10 percent of the world's economic output and 25 percent of world trade) is currently unrepresented in a forum hailed as the shape of things to come.

One option is to have the G20 comprise regional constituencies or rotating members from regions.  It is not clear that this would be acceptable in many parts of the world, or that if it were, whether it would necessarily result in a superior set of discussions and outcomes.  Regional powers are seldom seen as dispassionate in advancing regional issues.  It is even less likely that the regional powers would agree to have the region represented by someone other than themselves.  Would, for example, India or South Africa be willing to represent their neighbours?  Would their neighbours agree to this arrangement?  Would India and South Africa agree to rotating membership wherein one of their neighbours held the regional seat for a fixed period?

A variant on the above is to have regional institutions — for instance, the United Nations Economic Commissions or their non-economic counterparts such as the Organization of American States or the African Union — join the G20.  In addition to raising the number of members by five or six, it is not clear that many of the possible candidate institutions have the political heft to represent groups of countries in what are essentially political negotiations on complex subjects. Besides, since these institutions contain large and small members, it will be awkward and, in some cases, constitutionally impossible for them to represent only their small members that are not included in the G20.

Another option is to have all G20 decisions ratified by the UN General Assembly.  This is appealing as it recreates, at the international level, the bi-cameral legislative process found in many countries, one that reflects both “universality” and “power.”  Much would depend on how the G20 might react if the rest of the world voted down one of its decisions, or, more likely, achieved a majority vote through the usual arm twisting and blandishments, but with a considerable use of time and resources.

Variable geometry holds more promise; here, a core group of about 13 countries would be joined by another 10 or so, which would be selected depending on the issue at hand.  As long as the remit of the G20 remains, as it currently is, on purely economic matters, there is not likely to be much variety in membership. But if, for example, the G20 were to tackle climate change, overfishing or intellectual property, it is possible that in some instances at least, mid-sized developing countries would find themselves around the table.  Still, the resentment among countries excluded from the core should not be underestimated.

Giving Voice to Small Developing Nations will Strengthen the G20 Process

Alas, none of these proposals adequately addresses the question of “voice” for smaller developing countries for exactly the reasons that the G8 and the UN General Assembly, at two extremes, are also deemed to have failed in this regard.  International relations are fundamentally driven by power and the imperative to deal with crisis.  In these circumstances, voice has to assert itself — because it must if the world is to be truly well governed — through subtler means.

A weakness in the current G20 is that discussions are held without an adequate analytical basis on fiendishly complicated issues such as financial sector regulation and climate change.  If a mechanism were found to present the range of views and options on any given issue, then this might go some way in bringing the concerns of small developing countries into G20 deliberations.  Ideally, this mechanism would not consist of a new, permanent international bureaucracy, but rather use modern technology and creative organization to bring together, for example, networks of think tanks under a light secretariat that marshals the analyses into something G20 leaders and their officials might use. 

Small developing countries should not have to rely on their traditional benefactors in the G8 to bring forward their concerns, which in any case, are then sometimes framed unsatisfactorily in terms of benevolence and foreign aid.  The inclusion of large, articulate poor and recently poor countries in the G20 fold goes some way in ensuring that hitherto marginalized voices in global discussions are more directly present around the table.  (The delegations from India and China each represent at least as many poor persons as in all of Africa.)  The G20 process itself might create a dynamic in which smaller developing countries find a way to have their views heard, through some variant of the options listed above.  A sound analytical basis for negotiations coupled with a model for giving voice that emerges willingly is going to be superior to one where representation is mechanical and mandated.

The G20 has a limited window of time to demonstrate that it is representative and effective in ways that the G8 and the UN are not.  There is a pressing need for a forum where important issues may be discussed frankly and critically by those who have the means to address them —and other countries must believe that their interests are also being taken into account.

Rohinton Medhora is a member of the International Advisory Board of Governors of The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario and Vice-President, Programs, at Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC).   The views expressed in this note are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of IDRC.

About the Author

Rohinton P. Medhora is president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.