How Can the G20 Promote the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development (SDG 17)?

The G20, the club of the supposedly 19 most important countries plus the European Union, is in deep trouble. The gnawing question on legitimacy has been joined by fundamental doubts whether the elitist format at the apex of the global system can, indeed, deliver in face of rising nationalism and authoritarian egotism. The G20 sees itself not as concert of powers but rather as guardian of the global common good, determined to promote the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Fues/Messner 2016). Taken a face value, this would imply that member states assume leadership for the rapid and comprehensive implementation of SDG 17 on global partnership.

This text explores the relevance and meaning of G20 decisions at the recent Hamburg summit for the developing world. Of course, a few weeks after the event, this can only be a tentative assessment. A more thorough analysis is needed later in order to fully understand the developmental impact of Germany’s G20 presidency. Virtually everything on the G20’s plate, like climate, tax, trade, migration and terrorism, affects low-income countries, either directly or indirectly. Here, I will focus here on three critical issues of the summit, the 2030 Agenda, international development cooperation and Africa, which I already addressed before Hamburg (Fues 2016).

In a first step, let’s have a look how analysts with outstanding expertise on the leaders’ club perceive the outcome of the turbulent reunion in Northern Germany. I will then turn to the three indicated areas of special interest to developing countries. The concluding section spells out some ideas on how the G20 could upgrade their relations with the developing world.

Interpretations of the Hamburg Summit

Judgement on the recent meeting comes in different shades. Dirk Messner, Director of the German Development Institute (my employer) and co-chair of the T20 this year, takes a more positive view: “The good news is that those sceptical of cooperation were contained and held back and that setbacks were avoided.” (Messner 2017). John Kirton, the seasoned scholar on G8/G20 at the University of Toronto, goes all out in calling the event a “summit of significant success” (Kirton 2017). He concludes that frequent references to the 2030 Agenda, Africa and rural youth employment in the official documents “made Hamburg a development summit”. In a more balanced tone, Carlos Lopes, former Executive Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) writes that the summit “was after all a fair attempt by Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel to give direction to a group that has become a target of cynical criticism” (Lopes 2017). More will be said below on his interpretation of Hamburg as call to action for Africa.

Given the contestation around the elite club, it is clear that negative judgments also abound. Jesse Griffiths from the NGO Eurodad (European Network on Debt and Development) gives bad marks to Hamburg due to the “lack of concrete outcomes in the G20’s core areas” (Griffiths 2017). In a similar vein, Inge Kaul, a renowned scholar on global governance formerly associated with the United Nations Development Programme, speaks of the “failure to clearly add value” (Kaul 2017).

In the wake of Brexit and President Trump’s “America First”, most observers agree that the Hamburg Summit witnessed the acceleration of geopolitical shifts. A remarkable development highlighted by international commentators is China’s leading role in defence of an open world economy. Motivated by converging interests of their export-dependent economies, Germany and China are building up a privileged relationship. The mismatched pair is turning into a powerful centre of gravity for international cooperation in the G20 and beyond. In the run-up to Hamburg, Gregory Chin of Canada’s York University observed “that hope for the summit has been pinned on Germany and China, and whether they can inject some momentum.” (Chin 2017). Jonathan Luckhurst, a vivid commentator of global trends at Mexico’s Guadalajara University, goes one step further by asserting: “One could argue that talk of a ‘G2’ today could be more applicable to Sino–German global leadership, rather than including the U.S.” (Luckhurst 2017).

Due to the dominant interest in China’s role, observers lost sight of leaders from other Southern powers, such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. However, those participants did leave a mark on the proceedings. At an informal leaders’ meeting ahead of the summit, the BRICS coalition (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) issued an impressive statement which, regrettably, found little attention. The strongly worded document helped the German presidency to raise the profile of sustainability issues, including the Paris Agreement. A key sentence from it reads: “We commit ourselves to make further efforts in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” (BRICS 2017 China 2017). The pledge encompasses domestic as well as international efforts and signals the determination of Southern powers to support developing countries in transformative change.

After taking note of the overall summit outcome, our attention now turns to the significance of G20 decisions for developing countries in three critical areas, namely the 2030 Agenda, development cooperation and Africa.

The 2030 Agenda

Implementation of the 2030 Agenda by G20 member states is of immediate relevance for developing countries at three levels. First, domestic efforts in advanced economies, for example in low-carbon transformation, enlarge the environmental space of low-income countries. Second, the re-shaping of international regimes according to universal ethical norms favours developing countries. And, third, the principle of solidarity embodied in SDG 17, calls for an international transfer of material resources.

Maintaining the focus of the G20 on the SDGs has been a prominent objective of the German presidency. In this, Berlin built on the 2030 Action Plan adopted at the preceding Hangzhou Summit (Fues 2016). With the support of China and others, Germany was able to insert references to the 2030 Agenda into numerous summit documents. The final declaration, for example, contains highly ambitious wording. G20 leaders “commit to further align our actions with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its integral part, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, domestically and internationally, including in support of developing countries and the provision of public goods” (Government of Germany 2017a). If taken seriously, the G20 would now have to become a driver of SDG implementation, with a view to collective as well as individual action.

In a nuanced assessment of the leaders’ position on the 2030 Agenda, Imme Scholz and Clara Brandi, co-chairs of the T20 taskforce on this topic, tend towards a positive interpretation: “The outcome of the 2017 Hamburg Summit is not a breakthrough for sustainable development, but it does offer some opportunities for real progress.” (Scholz/Brandi 2017). They point out that the “Hamburg Update” formulated by the G20 Development Working Group (DWG) and ratified by leaders comprises three new, interlinked commitments (Government of Germany 2017b).

First, the G20 supports the leading role of the United Nations (UN), namely by the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), in the follow-up and review process on the 2030 Agenda. All G20 member states stress the significance of “high quality and regular Voluntary National Reviews (VNR)” for the effectiveness and credibility of UN-led monitoring and evaluation. However, they could not agree on a deadline by which all would have delivered their first reports.

Second, leaders decided to “establish a voluntary peer learning mechanism on the 2030 Agenda, to ensure continuous improvement of our approaches and to be able to share our experiences and lessons with other countries worldwide”. The potentially far-reaching consequences of this pledge become clearer when it is connected to the next element which speaks of institutionalized outreach to societies and organized interest groups.

The third new point specifies that the G20 Development Working Group will facilitate “a regular knowledge exchange with G20 engagement groups hosted by the G20 presidency, focusing on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, including the promotion of multi-stakeholder approaches”. Taken together, the three commitments imply that all G20 governments are willing to embed implementation of the 2030 Agenda into UN processes. And that they regard this as a challenge of continuous improvement and mutual learning in a multi-actor global framework.

As good as this sounds, critical questions on the authority and assertiveness of the Development Working Group need to be raised. Based on a leaders’ decision at the 2016 Hangzhou Summit, the DWG is charged with “supporting Sherpas to enhance policy coordination and coherence for sustainable development across relevant G20 tracks and work streams” (Annex A, 2030 Action Plan) (Government of Germany 2016). Due to power asymmetries within governments, it is virtually impossible for the DWG to fulfil its mandate. Public officials in this body often occupy a relatively low position in the pecking order of ministries. This severely hampers their effectiveness inside the Sherpa Track. The structural inferiority of the DWG becomes even more apparent in relation to the parallel G20 Finance Track. Officials active there generally have a limited understanding of and commitment to the 2030 Agenda.

The G20 partnership with Africa represents a fresh case study of power imbalances in the government systems of member states. As will be shown below, the Compact with Africa is mainly shaped by the neoliberal worldview of finance ministries which tends to disregard developmental experiences and insights from other sources.

Outside the remit of the DWG, certain G20 commitments with a potential impact on developing countries are also noteworthy. Surprisingly strong wording in the “Leaders’ Declaration” refers to “fostering the implementation of labour, social and environmental standards and human rights” in global supply chains as well as “national action plans on business and human rights”. This includes the commitment “to eliminate child labour by 2025, forced labour, human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery” (Government of Germany 2017a).

We will now turn to one aspect of the 2030 Agenda which is of particular significance for low-income countries, namely SDG 17 on global partnership.

International development cooperation

Obviously, the partnership between G20 and developing countries covers a wide range of factors, such as trade, investment, finance, security, aid and multilateral representation. This section will concentrate on the transfer of material resources to low-income countries. The G20 offers unique opportunities for the coordination of international development cooperation since it comprises all major providers, be it in the name of South-South cooperation (SSC) or North-South cooperation (NSC). Over recent years, Southern powers have become an important source of support to fellow developing countries (Sidiropoulos et al. 2015). Up to now, there is no global platform where external providers could continuously engage in the exchange of experiences and mutual learning amongst each other and with beneficiary countries (Fues 2015). While the representative biennial UN Development Cooperation Forum (DCF) lacks political clout and financial resources, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC) is shunned by Southern powers (Li 2017; Abdel-Malek 2015). A leading official of Brazil’s cooperation agency, ABC, provides the following reason for rejection: “The current  discourse,  as  seen  in  the  Global  Partnership  for Effective  Development  Cooperation,  gives  priority  to  the evaluation  of  managerial  aspects  of  cooperational initiatives,  especially  to  efficiency  and  accountability. There  is an  eloquent  silence  when  it  comes  to  donors  and  recipients  jointly  evaluating  the  efficacy  of  international  cooperation  as  an  instrument  for  promoting  autonomous  development.” (Corrêa 2017, p.2).

Industrialized countries can rely on the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for policy coordination, conceptual clarification and analytical work as well as for compilation of comprehensive data. In contrast, Southern providers lack cohesion. Corrêa (2017, p.4) observes that “major providers of South-South cooperation have not shown willingness to move in the direction of a common model.” In Latin America, however, things are different. Governments there have been able to agree on a shared framework for the definition and reporting of their SSC activities (SEGIB 2016). Recent efforts by the UN Secretariat to create a unified platform for all Southern providers have fizzled out due to insurmountable differences among participating administrations (Bracho 2015).

Lately, the BRICS coalition has moved forward on finding common ground for their SSC activities. Last year, for the first time, development cooperation agencies from member states organized a separate meeting. The BRICS Hamburg statement promises further steps in this direction: “We commit to take stock of our cooperation experiences” (BRICS 2017 China 2017). If they are successful in this regard, BRICS could become the nucleus of consensus-building among Southern providers. Once this is achieved, SSC and NSC governments, possibly propelled by the G20 Development Working Group, might enter into a meaningful dialogue on how to coordinate and align their respective contributions to SDG 17. The recent UN High-Level Political Forum HLPF) has already witnessed a broad debate on how to generate comparable data in this field.

Considering the fundamental differences between SSC and NSC and, additionally, the internal divisions in the Southern camp, it is not astonishing that the G20 Development Working Group has so far shied away from addressing international development cooperation. However, the “Leaders’ Declaration” at the Hamburg summit implies a break with past practice of dodging the uncomfortable question of coordination. Leaders expressed their willingness to “commit to further align our actions with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development … including in support of developing countries …” (Government of Germany 2017a). This clearly refers to the need for shared understandings on the purposes and modalities of SSC and NSC.

The necessity of coordinating providers in international development cooperation has increased in the face of mushrooming initiatives for developing countries, particularly towards Africa. China promotes its Belt and Road Initiative (RBI) (Fues 2017), while India and Japan have joined forces for their competing concept, the Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) (RIS 2017). At the Hamburg summit, the German presidency attempted to forge a collective G20 effort for Africa, albeit with limited success. It is the G20-Africa link to which we now turn.

Africa Partnership

Following in the footsteps of the Chinese presidency which had, for the first time, focused on Africa, Chancellor Merkel invested a significant portion of her political capital to bring forth a new quality in G20 relations with the continent. The frequent references to Africa in summit documents are a tribute to her determination. However, the substance and relevance of the new partnership are highly contested. To begin with, the Chancellor was not able to amalgam three independent initiatives from her own ministries into one coherent concept. Supported by the renowned Oxford scholar, Paul Collier, the Finance Ministry collaborated with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank in designing the Compact with Africa (CwA) framework. This is addressed to individual African nations and aims at improving local conditions for foreign investment.

Independent of schemes by the finance ministry, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development concocted the Marshall Plan with Africa. The concept addresses structural impediments in the global economy which discriminate against Africa, for example escalating tariffs on natural resources from Africa like coffee and cocoa and agricultural exports. However, since it treads on the toes of powerful economic interests in the industrialized world, the Marshall Plan failed to get much traction within the German government, not to speak of the G20. To add to the creative outflow of Africa-related ideas from Berlin, the Economics Ministry presented its “Pro! Africa” initiative which is meant to generate more private-sector investment and jobs in Africa by German companies.

Broad criticism towards all three German plans points to the fact that they were not designed in partnership with African actors and that they do not adequately take into account existing strategies on the continent, like the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Robert Kappel and Helmut Reisen, two eminent German scholars on Africa, come to highly sceptical conclusions regarding the Compact with Africa, the core element of the new partnership. They criticize that the underlying macro-economic framework “does not adequately reflect major African challenges: lack of jobs, poverty, insufficiently integrated economies, and low levels of industrialization” (Kappel/Reisen 2017). Similarly, Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General of the Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing Countries cautions that “a quick fix solution works only partially” (Chaturvedi 2017).There are also much more radical voices to be heard. Referring to the historical Africa conference of 1885 in the German capital, Yash Tandon, previously Executive Director of the Geneva-based South Centre, condemns the outcome of the Hamburg summit as “second Berlin war against Africa” (Tandon 2017).

It is also not clear to what extent G20 member states will support the German initiative. The BRICS statement at Hamburg did not mention Africa. This could because, as mentioned above, China and India have launched competing cooperation programs with the continent. Regarding the U.S. position, John Stremlau, fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs, finds that the Trump administration “has shown little interest in, knowledge of, or desire to partner with African countries” (Stremlau 2017).

The impact of the German-led G20 partnership with Africa will ultimately depend on the continent’s responses and pro-active strategies under the leadership of the African Union and other regional and sub-regional organizations. With this in mind, the African expert Carlos Lopes, cited above, interprets the summit results as a wake-up call: “Instead of being too distracted by others’ plans for Africa, it is high time to have a plan for how the continent deals with them, G20 included.” (Lopes 2017).

A more assertive role of Africa towards the G20 requires substantive analytical work on priority concerns and on promising strategies for negotiation and implementation. For this to happen it is essential that continental knowledge organizations strengthen their capabilities. At the same time, African governments need to open up to outside advice and foster independent research. Against this backdrop, think tanks from Africa and from G20 countries made a big step forward by establishing the T20 Africa Standing Group at the Berlin think tank summit in May 2017. If nurtured properly, the new constellation could become a significant source of evidence-supported policy advice for the new G20 Africa constellation (Hackenesch/Leininger/Sidiropoulos 2017).

This brings us to concluding thoughts on the future of G20 relations with developing countries.

Conclusions and Outlook

As we have seen from a short look at three exemplary issues – the 2030 Agenda, development cooperation and Africa – the Hamburg Summit delivered meaningful wording for improved G20 relations with the developing world. Of course, decisions of leaders there will only make a difference if they are followed up by concrete action. All in all, I see the Hamburg documents as small steps in the right direction. However, G20 members need to take a much closer look at the structural impact of their policies on low-income countries. Fundamental transformation is essential which re-shapes globalization according to the principles of social, environmental and economic sustainability, spelled out in full by the 2030 Agenda.

Just ahead of the Hamburg Summit, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) together with the Bertelsmann Foundation published a new edition of its SDG index. The report focuses on countries’ global responsibilities and international spillover effects in achieving the SDGs. The findings underline the prominent role of G20 countries “since negative effects tend to flow from rich to poor countries” (SDSN 2017, p.3). Cross-border impacts included in the study include pollution and biodiversity loss embedded in international trade, trade in weapons or the use of global commons like high seas. Economic factors are also considered, such as unfair tax competition and money laundering. The authors suggest that a systematic assessment of negative spillover factors should be included in national reporting on SDGs. This is an eminently relevant issue for global partnership, SDG 17. If the G20 genuinely wanted to address the negative dimensions of interaction with developing countries, member states should assume a leading role in integrating such externalities in subsequent reviews. This would provide the necessary empirical evidence for transformative change in relations between the G20 and the developing world.

Paper written for conference “South-South and Triangular Development Cooperation” (Delhi 3), organized by Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), 24-25 August 2017, New Delhi/India


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Thomas Fues

Thomas Fues, trained as an economist, has been with German Development Institute as Senior Researcher since 2004. His main research interests include global governance, rising powers, United Nations and international development cooperation. In addition to his research tasks, Dr. Fues heads the training department at the German Development Institute. In previous stages of his career he worked for the German parliament, the Institute of Peace and Development (University Duisburg-Essen), the government of North Rhine Westphalia, the German Advisory Council on Global Change and as a free-lance consultant.

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