G20 development pledges overshadowed by climate rift

German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G-20 Summit's closing press conference. Photo by: Sandra Steins / Bundesregierung

HAMBURG — World leaders at the G-20 summit reached a consensus on an array of development issues, from investment in Africa to pandemic preparedness, during their two-day meeting in Hamburg, Germany, this weekend.

Yet amid one of the most visible policy rifts between the United States and the rich-country grouping, many analysts and advocates are concerned that those areas of consensus papered over broader disagreements on trade, finance and climate that will ultimately have a greater impact on the developing world.

“Given the problems the world is faced with, the level of ambition, the amount of action is obviously too low,” said Adolf Kloke-Lesch, who runs the German Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

After months of preparations, the summit ended with agreements to spur private investment in Africa, to support global health preparedness, to renew commitments to boost women’s employment and to achieve Agenda 2030. In addition, the U.S. pledged $639 million for food relief for areas of the world facing famine and drought.

U.S. backtracking on the Paris Agreement on climate change particularly may well overshadow those gains. While the other 19 members declared the Paris Agreement to be “irreversible” in a final communiqué, experts warned the summit might mark the beginning of a further erosion of support for the agreement.

“Some sort of a domino effect is not improbable,” Kloke-Lesch said. “The danger that we’re going to see the unraveling of the Paris Agreement is not completely out of sight.”

Prioritizing Africa

The summit’s most resounding consensus centered around a German government-proposed “Compact with Africa,” which it highlighted in a separate conference in mid-June attended by more than a half-dozen African heads of state.

The compact model calls for African countries to work with international financial institutions to create policies that will encourage private investment. G-20 countries are expected to provide assistance and political backing — and possibly incentives to potential investors.

Berlin’s advance work appeared to pay off. As global leaders entered this weekend’s summit, they said investing in Africa would be among their top priorities. “When it comes to Africa, it’s very important to me that binding agreements are adopted,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, at a press conference ahead of the official opening. “For me, Africa is the top priority.”

The summit ended with an official G-20 Africa Partnership, with the Compact with Africa as a core component. Also included are commitments to develop infrastructure — especially around sustainable energy — and to improve economic growth and employment. A youth employment initiative will aim to create 1.1 million new jobs for young people by 2022 worldwide, with a particular focus on Africa. But the compact is the clear centerpiece.

“Conceptually, it’s strong and really reflects good thinking about how to spur particularly private investment in lower-income countries,” said Scott Morris, an expert at the Center for Global Development. “And then, of course, it clearly has the strong backing of the full G-20, which is something we shouldn’t take for granted given other areas of clear division for the U.S.”

Some African leaders had expressed concern ahead of the summit about the nature of the relationships G-20 leaders were looking to establish with their governments. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has not shied away framing the compact as part of a larger effort to improve African economies and help stem the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe.

At an event organized by the German ministry of economic cooperation and development a day ahead of the G-20, Guinea’s President Alpha Condé had cautioned, “we need partners, also from the private sector, but if we want to erect a water reservoir, then we do not want to be a sub-contractor for a German or European company. We do not want to be beggars opening our hands and asking for money.”

Merkel’s closing remarks seemed to be aimed at Condé’s concerns, emphasizing that the compact is not a pledge, but a framework for how African governments, G-20 nations and IFIs can work together to improve the climate for private investment on the continent.

“We’re trying to put the spirit of partnership into the foreground and try to develop instruments to do that,” she said.

Preparing for pandemics

Global health issues took a seat at the head table in Hamburg, following the first-ever G-20 health ministers meeting in May in Berlin. Merkel’s government prioritized pandemic preparedness at the summit, which included a delegation from the World Health Organization and its newly installed Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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Tedros, as well as several other G-20 countries and advocates, took the opportunity to link pandemic preparedness to universal health coverage. UHC is one of the new WHO leader’s major priorities, and the summit was preceded by a months-long civil society campaign pushing leaders to consider how gaps in the health system allow diseases to spread.

The West Africa Ebola outbreak, Tedros said on Saturday, revealed that “our global system is only as strong as its weakest link.” He added, “We must address the root causes of this problem: The lack of access of the most vulnerable people to health care, especially primary health care.”

In a welcome surprise to advocates, the G-20’s final communiqué referenced UHC specifically, while also recognizing that “strong health systems are important to effectively address health crises.”

“We were positively surprised that the language made it into the communiqué in the end, given the political circumstances some of our G-20 countries are in, especially in regards to health care,” said Katri Bertram, the head of advocacy and policy for Save the Children Germany. She noted that she would have liked to have seen more specific commitments emerge, however.

Leaders also called for the creation of a research and development collaboration facility to boost efforts to combat antimicrobial resistance. The G-20 urged member countries to implement national action plans by the end of next year to combat this growing problem.

And WHO officials said the summit could serve as a springboard for future pledges, especially around funding for emergency preparedness. “Once you’ve got the political commitment, usually the financial commitments can follow,” said Dr. Peter Salama, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program.

SDGs for all or for others?

In addition to new plans, G-20 leaders took stock of progress on the central development initiative of last year’s summit in Hangzhou, China, the Action Plan on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In the year following that agreement, analysts had criticized the plan for setting its own agenda, rather than adhering to the platforms already laid out in the SDGs. “For the moment, the Action Plan is following its own logic of the G-20 and this needs to be corrected and adapted,” said Klaus Schilder, a policy officer for the German development agency MISEREOR.

Addressing some of those concerns, G-20 leaders released a progress report that attempted to streamline advances within their activities toward the SDGs. Kloke-Lesch said the report serves two important purposes: Setting an expectation that all of the G-20’s activities should be examined through the lens of the SDGs, as well as putting a yearly review process into motion.

“From a structural point of view, there has been some sort of stabilization and institutionalization and that’s important,” Kloke-Lesch said. “For the German presidency, the main issue was to anchor the agenda on a permanent basis within the G-20 architecture.”

He was worried, though, that the Hamburg summit seemed to step back from the universality of Agenda 2030, positioning it as a rubric for developing countries to follow but not necessarily something they should apply domestically.

“They seem to understand this agenda as a traditional development agenda that is about other countries,” he said, an unwelcome shift from Hangzhou.

Climate rift

Progress on development issues was overshadowed by the climate change rift that set the U.S. against the rest of the G-20 members. Some experts are worried that the willingness of the U.S. to stand in opposition to the other 19 might encourage other members to begin ducking their own commitments under the Paris Agreement.

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Turkey has already expressed concern that, with the U.S. out of the climate agreement, funds earmarked for developing countries that reduce their emissions may dry up. When it dropped out of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. withdrew $2 billion in unpaid commitments to the Green Climate Fund.

President Recep Erdogan announced before he even left Hamburg that he may no longer submit the agreement to his country’s parliament for ratification. Other leaders did little to allay concerns about the continued availability of mitigation funding, though the final communiqué did underscore the importance of multilateral development banks in assisting.

This might turn out to be just one of many reasons developing countries, chafing under their Paris commitments, might point to if they attempt to back out.

Achieving the promises laid out in the plan is “going to take hard work that, frankly, a lot of countries don’t want to do,” said Kate DeAngelis, an international policy analyst at Friends of the Earth. “Any excuse they can take to get out of it, they’re going to.”

Also from the perspective of developing countries, Kloke-Lesch said the G-20 did little to advance conversations around global trade and finance. While they used the communiqué to reaffirm fair trade and open markets, calling for a sustainable global supply chain, there was little in terms of actual commitments.

“We know that it’s not a pledging conference,” he said. “But there are so many issues with access to finance, with debt issues, but instead you just have agreed language.”

Experts across the development agenda said they would now turn to watching for what emerges from the agenda set in Hamburg. The G-20 has no permanent structure, raising questions about how much action will follow.

Morris pointed particularly to the Compact with Africa. “Anything ambitious like this is always a challenge for the G-20,” he said. “It’s very hard to sustain an effort like this from year to year.”

DeAngelis cautioned that there is often a tendency to overstate the importance of the documents that emerge from global meetings such as the G-20.

“We’ve seen in the past very good, strongly worded communiqués on fossil fuel subsidies from the G-20 and other fora,” she said. “But nothing happens at the country level. Very little actually changes.”

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About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Correspondent based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.