Africa should get more out of the G20

2015-04-09

Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian President Robert Mugabe will represent the African Union (AU) at the next summit of the Group of Twenty (G20) in Antalya, Turkey, on November 15 and 16 this year.

That prospect does not inspire great confidence in the chances of the AU, or Africa in general, deriving much benefit from the G20.

Africa will also be represented by the chairperson of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who may be a little more tuned to the G20’s work. Mugabe and Sall will be there as part of the G20’s outreach programme to non-members of the G20.

But whether these two presidents will really represent African interests to the G20 is rather doubtful. The G20 has an agenda with considerable relevance to the development of Africa (and elsewhere) mainly through its Development Working Group. That includes reforming the international tax system to try to ensure multinational corporations pay due taxes in the countries where they do business (including Africa); streamlining and reducing the costs of the transfer of remittances to developing countries; and helping developing countries mobilise revenues domestically.

The G20 has an agenda with considerable relevance to the development of Africa

These issues have large potential for increasing development finance. South Africa is the only African member of the G20. And so President Jacob Zuma will also, presumably, be in Antalya. However he will not, essentially, be there as a representative of Africa – but only of South Africa.

As local officials point out, South Africa has no mandate from Africa to represent its interests at the G20. It is interesting to note, in passing, that Pretoria seems to be downplaying its African representivity in the G20 more, now that Nigeria has overtaken South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. This suggests that South Africa is feeling a threat that it could be displaced – even though most observers believe that it is doing a better job than Nigeria could.

South Africa is more integrated into the international economy and has better financial institutions – all the more relevant in the G20, which is so financially oriented. And South Africa has done a good job, in fact, of representing African interests indirectly and unofficially through its participation in the G20’s Development Working Group, as well as more directly, by providing feedback of G20 work to the AU and the African Development Bank. Yet, all in all, South Africa’s membership and the outreach to the AU and NEPAD leaders do not amount to adequate African G20 representation. But whose fault is that? Africa is always complaining about being insufficiently represented in international organisations.

Africa is always complaining about being insufficiently represented in international organisations

Yet Catherine Grant-Makokera points out, in an article published by the SA Institute of International Affairs, that Africa is missing an opportunity for effective representation on the G20. She explains that the real work of the G20 is carried out not so much at the annual summit but in the countless committees, working groups and so on, between summits.

Last year, for instance, Australia, as the 2014 G20 president, held more than 60 such meetings. She says Senegal, holding the NEPAD chair and Mauritania, holding the AU chair for the year, were invited to attend most of those. But they chose not to, and instead only sent Mauritian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Senegalese President Sall to the summit in Brisbane.

One might have expected instead that the AU Commission and the NEPAD secretariat would have sent officials with relevant expertise to the G20 working meetings, who would have been able to make a more substantive contribution than the two presidents. But it would seem Africa chose to be represented more symbolically than substantively.

‘In short, opportunities are available for African countries to be better represented at the G20, but to date these have not yet been utilised effectively and it is not fair to put the burden on South Africa to do this alone,’ writes Grant-Makokera. ‘South Africa has its national interests to consider in the first instance, and also no official mandate from other African countries to play a broader role within the G20.’

Does that also account for the apparent indifference of official Africa towards the G20?

She proposes that the AU Commission establish a G20 co-ordinating committee to represent Africa at the G20. It could work with South Africa and other relevant organisations, such as NEPAD and the African Development Bank.

Turkey has now taken over the presidency of the G20 and at a recent seminar at the South African Institute of International Affairs, it was pointed out that Ankara will also pay attention to Africa’s interest. This would be largely indirectly, however, through Turkey’s stated priority of ‘buttressing sustainability,’ which focuses on development of the low-income developing countries – 24 of which are in Africa.

Turkey has pointed out that 2015 is a crucial year for development – particularly African development, with the contentious post-2015 development agenda due to be adopted at a United Nations summit in September; and the third international conference on financing for development to be held in Addis Ababa in July.

But, apart from the issue of Africa not taking sufficient advantage of the opportunities presented to it for getting a seat at the G20 table, the seminar also considered whether the G20 itself was properly structured to maximise its development work.

Some participants (who cannot be quoted because the seminar was held under Chatham House rules) suggested that the G20’s two-track system was too segregated for this purpose. The main, finance ministers’ track deals with the largest issues – including the management of global financial and economic crises, the purpose for which the G20 was established. The G20 ‘sherpas’ track deals with the other issues, including the Development Working Group.

Some experts complained that this system means that there are no financial experts on the working group. Which there should be – because the G20’s approach to development is largely financial. That has been its unique contribution to the broader development agenda. Issues such as ensuring that large multinationals pay due taxes; streamlining the transfer of remittances; and, above all perhaps, helping development countries to collect all the taxes due to them, are of course financial issues.

Does that also account for the apparent indifference of official Africa towards the G20? To a mindset that perhaps still sees development as manna falling from foreign donors, jacking up one’s own revenue service to potentially find the finances for development in one’s back yard, may not seem like a development issue at all.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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