Germany pushes development for upcoming G20 summit

The Speicherstadt district in Hamburg, where the G-20 Summit will be held. Photo by: Andreas Vallbracht / Federal Government

BERLIN — The German government has expanded the agenda of next month’s G-20 Summit to include development issues that go well beyond the usual subject matter when the world’s richest countries meet. Climate change, global health, partnerships with African countries and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be up for discussion as Germany chairs the meeting in Hamburg on July 7-8.

Analysts see the move as an encouraging push to elevate development issues, a trend that began several years ago but has accelerated under Germany’s year-long chair of the G-20. German officials have said the agenda is designed to reflect what Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government sees as the most critical development challenges, as well as issues that do not receive enough global attention.

Those issues fall broadly into three categories — resilience, sustainability and responsibility. They also contain several specific goals, including improving pandemic preparedness, using digital technology to empower women and girls and improving access to financial services for the world’s poorest people.

Germany has used the past months to try to build interest around those issues among other G-20 governments, with an eye to possible commitments emerging from the Hamburg summit. Commitments could range from a restatement of efforts to pursue the 2030 Agenda to a vow to fight climate change to specific financing pledges for disease surveillance systems.

Still, experts are tempering expectations, cautioning that the summit may not the best forum for setting a global development agenda, particularly in a year when the proceedings may be overshadowed by the presence of United States President Donald Trump. Germany will have to sustain its lobbying well beyond the meeting itself to have a longer impact on global priorities, they said.

A longer agenda

Though traditionally a forum for leaders from the world’s largest economies to hash out financial and economic issues, development concerns have come to play a more prominent role at recent summits.

At the Seoul meeting in 2010, the G-20 introduced the Development Consensus for Shared Growth, which set a framework for how members could help spur economic growth in low-income countries.

During last year’s meeting in Hangzhou, China, the G-20 committed to an Action Plan around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which included pledges of new investments in infrastructure and commitments to improve financial inclusion and ease the global remittances system.

“You can see the agenda has been growing from presidency to presidency,” said Axel Berger, who heads the G-20 Policy Research Group at the German Development Institute. The German government “put a lot of issues that are not in the strict sense related to economic issues on the agenda.”

The importance of these actions comes not just from any specific activities but in the fact that they have won G-20 support.

“When it comes to globalization, managing the global economy, managing the global commons, if the G-20 doesn’t put its weight behind something, the chances of it happening are slim,” said Rohinton Medhora, the president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a non-partisan Canadian think tank.

Lower expectations

Experts warn, though, not to expect too much, in part because of the personalities involved this year. A recent G-7 Summit in Italy in May, they point out, was dominated by stories of discord between Trump and the other leaders.

Germany's 'Marshall Plan with Africa'

Germany's development ministry has released an ambitious, private-sector oriented "Marshall Plan" to re-write the country's engagement with the African continent. The proposal comes as Germany prepares to take a stronger lead in shaping donor policy ahead of hosting the G-20 summit.

“Chancellor Merkel has emphasized that they can only work on consensus,” said Heike Spielmans, the managing director of the Association of German Development and Humanitarian Aid NGOs. “Looking at all the heads of state meeting there nowadays, it’s unlikely there will be enormous positive changes coming with the G-20 summit.”

The G-20’s rotating leadership could limit progress, too. Like all chairs, Germany only holds the presidency for a year — a short window to try to build a global consensus around any issue. Although there will be a push to emerge from Hamburg with commitments, Berger said it is just as important to sustain interest once the summit ends.

“It doesn’t make sense to put a topic on the agenda, launch a couple of nice initiatives, but see that they are not being carried forward to the next presidency,” he said.

Continuity after the upcoming summit may depend on Germany’s continued lobbying, particularly with Argentina, which holds the chair next. Germany will remain part of a G-20 leadership troika, which includes the host government, as well as the immediate past and future chairs. Germany, for example, retained the focus of last year’s host, China, on Agenda 2030 as part of its own presidency.

Emerging alliances

As one hedge against the political uncertainty, Berger said the German government has done a better job than previous presidencies of attempting to build support among civil society organizations, think tanks and other actors.

The run-up to the summit has traditionally included specific meetings for labor leaders, civil society organizations, think tanks, women’s and youth groups, and the business community. It offers an opportunity for those advocates and organizations to try to influence the outcomes of the summit, though their previous impact has been somewhat muted by governments that were not interested in engaging with them.

“The German government made a huge effort to have a serious dialogue with these processes and these stakeholders,” Berger said, with an eye toward recruiting allies who can continue pushing the agenda after the summit ends.

Even if no consensus emerges on the leadership level, Medhora said there are also important opportunities to build alliances on the sidelines of the meeting. He pointed to the possibility of a collaboration on climate change, for instance, that does not necessarily involve the U.S., following Trump’s announcement this month to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. There could also be opportunities to spur investments in Africa, broadening the proposed Compact with Africa beyond just a European initiative.

“It’s not that what the G-20 as a group does doesn’t matter,” he said. “But one of the things these summits provide is room for smaller groups to convene.”

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    Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Contributor based in Berlin. He writes regularly about global health and human rights issues. He has also worked as Voice of America’s South Sudan bureau chief and as the Center for Public Integrity’s web editor.