Stewart M. Patrick

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G20 Priorities: Advance Sustainable Development, Bolster Fragile States

by Stewart M. Patrick
February 14, 2012

Mexican President Felipe Calderon (L) speaks to members of the G20 during a G20 Sherpas' meeting at Los Pinos Presidential Palace in Mexico City, February 3, 2012. (Bernardo Montoya/ Courtesy Reuters) Mexican President Felipe Calderon (L) speaks to members of the G20 during a G20 Sherpas' meeting at Los Pinos Presidential Palace in Mexico City, February 3, 2012. (Bernardo Montoya/ Courtesy Reuters)

This weekend, foreign ministers from the Group of Twenty Nations (G20) will meet in Los Cabos—the first such meeting in a group which has been dominated by finance ministers and central bank governors since its inception. With foreign ministers at the table will the G20, like the G7 and G8 before it, expand its remit to address a broader suite of global challenges?

Two compelling issues for the G20 to take on would be advancing sustainable development and bolstering fragile states. Both represent a natural extension of its foray into development since the Seoul Summit of November 2010. As hosts of the G20, the Mexican government has an opportunity to forge major-power consensus on each front.

Linking the G20 to the Rio+20 Summit

This year’s G20 summit of heads of state will also occur in Los Cabos, from June 18 to 19, on the eve of the Earth summit in Rio de Janeiro (June 20–22). At Rio, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) will seek to reinvigorate flagging global efforts to integrate the economic, social and environmental aspects of development. In selecting “green growth” as a cross-cutting theme of its G20 presidency, Mexico has injected the G20 into global debates over “sustainable development.”

The G20 must begin by defining “green growth.” The concept remains nebulous and subject to varying interpretations. Despite OECD efforts to flesh out this concept, the phrase still encompasses any initiative with a putative ecological dimension. Leaders at the summit must specify what this phrase actually means—and what it does not.

More broadly, the G20 partners should pledge concrete actions and make tangible commitments to ensure the success of the Rio+20 conference. The Rio agenda is massive, and expectations are so great, that the UNCSD risks degenerating into a cacophonous failure, with mutual recriminations among governments and NGOs. Nations will also grapple with a huge range of challenges, such as the global food and energy crises, mass migration, and desertification.

  • Avoid tackling climate change head on: Given the membership overlap between the G20 and the Major Economies Forum (MEF), it seems reasonable that the G20 will someday subsume the MEF. The complexities of global climate change negotiations, however, which are already occurring in parallel UN and MEF processes, make this a long-term, rather than immediate goal. In Mexico, leaders should not seek to break current climate change deadlocks but instead focus on other critical items on the Rio agenda.
  • Add Fisheries Management to the G20 Food Security Agenda: Globally, perhaps a billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein. But more than 80 percent of commercial fisheries are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering. It is clear that international regimes to regulate fishing have failed. Mexico, both a victim of over-fishing and a pioneer in marine resource management, can push G20 nations toward greater consensus on new norms and rules governing management of coastal ecosystems and straddling fish stocks, the regulation of fishing technologies, the establishment of aquaculture standards and marine reserves, and the creation of multinational quota schemes for critically endangered species. Fisheries would be a natural addition to the Mexican G20 presidency’s focus on food security and affirm the importance of fishing to the global economy.
  • Support sensible consolidation of global environmental bodies: Rio’s most controversial agenda item may be the aspiration to reform “the system of global governance for sustainable development.”  Reform proposals range from the incremental—upgrading the UN Environmental Program or strengthening the Commission on Sustainable Development—to the  grandiose—like establishing a World Environmental Organization, something France has previously championed. In June, G20 nations should advocate sensible consolidation of international environmental agencies, but reject unrealistic calls for a single global environmental body.

Spurring G20 Leadership on the Fragile States Agenda

Meanwhile, the international community is struggling to develop concrete initiatives to advance the Busan agenda on aid effectiveness, particularly the proposed “New Deal” for fragile states. G20 members should expand their development agenda by establishing common principles for engaging the world’s forty-odd fragile states, which represent the “hard core” of the global development challenge in the words of World Bank president Robert Zoellick.

The rationale for G20 engagement is clear: Such countries are furthest from the MDGs and are the likeliest settings for human rights abuses and humanitarian disasters. And in certain circumstances, they can generate transnational spillovers—from warfare to crime to terrorism—that threaten regional stability and even international security.

Mexico can play a catalytic role in directing G20 attention and resources to the world’s fragile states. Any effective global response to state fragility will require a common approach among G20 nations, particularly given the rise of non-traditional donors like China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and others. Mexico, as a relatively recent entrant into the OECD (and a country that, while far from a fragile state, has experienced its share of governance challenges), is ideally placed to liaise between advanced market democracies and major emerging economies—and to help guide the G20 toward common principles of donor engagement in fragile states. The Mexican government should:

  • Seek explicit G20 endorsement of the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States:” That promising initiative, which nineteen fragile and conflict-affected states designed, establishes new partnership principles between donors and fragile states. The New Deal endorses a common fragility assessment in affected countries; assistance strategies that are locally-designed and led; mutual accountability between aid donors and recipients; transparent revenue management by fragile states; and multi-stakeholder dialogue on development priorities in fragile states. Beyond endorsing the broad contours of the “New Deal,” the G20 should commit to work with the OECD and fragile states to develop indicators to gauge progress in building resilient state institutions.
  • Promote tangible G20 contributions to valuable multilateral funds: The Mexican government should encourage G20 nations to  pledge resources to critical financing mechanisms like the World Bank’s Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries Trust Fund, as well as the United Nations Peace-Building Fund, to address priority needs, including the funding of recurrent expenditures in states emerging from conflict.

While the debate over the G20’s future will continue, and G20 leaders will likely resist “mission creep,” sustainable development and assisting fragile states are logical next steps for the G20 to pursue—and ones that won’t steer it too far from its core mandate.

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