The 2014 G20 summit: What did it achieve?

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Brisbane – Walking around Brisbane today after the G20 Leaders’ Summit, there is little physical evidence that the meeting ever took place.  The security barriers have gone, the banners taken down, and everyone is back at work after enjoying an extra public holiday.  But what about the decisions taken by the G20 leaders last weekend?  Will their impacts be just as transitory?

In the run up to the meeting, everyone from the OECD to the IMF to the Pope was calling for action on inequality.  The Australian hosts were incredibly reluctant to do this, or to even use the word ‘inequality’. The fact that the Summit communiqué issued at the end of the leaders’ deliberations mentioned inequality not once, but twice, represents a significant shift. It means that the G20 now has a mandate to deliver wealth to many and not just to an elite few - and that we can hold them accountable for this. 

But what about tangible steps towards tackling that inequality?  There was some progress from the G20 on tax: increases in transparency in how and where companies report their profits and steps to close loopholes that enable corporations to dodge hundreds of millions of dollars in tax.  But more still needs to be more done.  Corporations’ country by country reporting needs to be public, for example: not just given in private to tax authorities.  And the countries that are most affected in the tax game have largely been shut out of the decision making. Luxembourg, a tax haven, is part of the negotiations around reform of global tax rules, but Sierra Leone - where Ebola is raging and tax incentives for 6 multinational companies are equivalent to 8 times the health budget – is not. This is not fair.

Perhaps the best thing to come out of this meeting of some of the world’s most powerful countries was the commitment to reduce the gender gap in workforce participation – that’s the difference between the amount of men and women that are working in paid jobs – by 25% over the next 10 years. While we also need progress on the significant gap in pay between men and women, this is an important step. If achieved, it will have significant beneficial impacts for women and for societies and economies more broadly.

On climate change there was also some progress. The current government in Australia is a significant climate blocker and had been strenuously against discussion of this issue at the summit. However, in the end it had to give in to pressure from other nations, perhaps particularly the United States and China. There wasn’t a revolution on climate change, but we did at least see some solid language in the final communiqué.

There was one big failure. The G20 Summit was a key opportunity for world leaders to act together on Ebola, to coordinate their efforts and ensure that the commitments of funds, resources and people required to contain the outbreak are met. Despite lots of warm words, there were no specifics. The deadline that the UN set for those commitments to be made is now just days away and the G20 leaders gave only a lacklustre response.  The people of West Africa, and the world, deserve better.

So, what did the G20 Summit achieve?  The G20’s promise to pursue inclusive and sustainable growth is welcome, but their response to the Ebola crisis was dangerously inadequate.  The Leaders’ words at the Summit now need to be turned into actions that fight poverty and inequality and which deliver for the bottom 40% more than they do for the top 10% of the world’s population. Only when this has happened can we truly say the Summit was a success.

Steve Price-Thomas OBE is Deputy Advocacy and Campaigns Director of Oxfam International. 

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