The Group of Twenty (G20), the premier international forum for global economic cooperation is most recognisable through the prism of its annual Leaders’ Summit. This is when Heads of Government from the world’s most important economies gather to discuss and negotiate a communiqué of non-binding economic policy recommendations.
It is during this theatrical summit when global media obsessively focus on the faux pas of leaders, such as when back Trump abandoned the host country’s (now former) President, Maurcio Macri, on stage in Argentina. Another instance was when President Trump’s daughter Ivanka, became the subject of a viral video of the moment she was snubbed by global leaders in a sideline conversation in Japan.
While the leaders’ summit is a very public culmination of the year’s work on the G20, it is the less public, non-government work that often goes unnoticed.
The G20’s Track II agenda
In this piece, I set out the non-government, or ‘Track II’, activity that surrounds the government-to-government agenda in the G20. I argue that these engagement groups, while not perfect, are an important component of a consultative process for proposing domestic and international policy recommendations.
The non-government contribution to the G20 takes place through ‘engagement groups’, which are spinouts to the Track I government meetings. There are no clearly defined guidelines or rules for engagement groups; the number of groups and their ability to engage and access Track I processes largely depends on the current president country of the G20.
Therefore, the information presented here is my personal experience of how engagement groups operate. I base this on participation at various engagement group meetings as an Australian delegate including in Turkey, China, Argentina, Japan, and now as Head Delegate for W20 Saudi Arabia in 2020. Throughout this time, I have closely observed how these groups operate and attempted to provide a framework for how they influence policy.
Official pathways to influence
In the system of Track II engagement, there are both official engagement groups and unofficial engagement groups. I will first deal with the official engagement groups.
In 2019, there were eight officially recognised engagements groups (Figure 1). These are the Business 20 (B20), Civil 20 (C20), Labour 20 (L20), Science 20 (S20), Think Tank 20 (T20), Urban 20 (U20), Women 20 (W20, and Youth 20 (Y20). Often referred to as the ‘alphabet soup’, these engagement groups focus on discrete topics and are attended by subject matter expert delegates. Similar to the G20 leaders’ communiqué, the primary objective of the engagement groups is to produce a set of policy recommendations.
G20 leaders and their governments should consider, and where possible, incorporate these recommendations in their deliberations. It is this process, which makes these engagement groups ‘official’, as there is a formal pathway to the government track.
Generally, the Chair of the engagement group will present the communiqué to the host country’s Head of Government. This is accompanied by its own theatrical ceremony that generates some media interest depending on how important that engagement group is considered in that year.
Outside the G20 system, beyond the theatre, is where the engagement group’s communiqué can also be powerful. Delegates may use this document as a powerful tool for lobbying governments both domestically and internationally for legislative and policy change.
Alternative routes to influence
In addition to these official engagement groups, there are two further credible but non-official groups that have circled around the edges of the G20.
First, there is the G20 Young Entrepreneurs’ Alliance (G20 YEA). The YEA focuses on policy recommendations that will benefit young entrepreneurs across the globe. While it does not have a formal pathway to G20 leaders, the B20 recognises the G20 YEA. It is through this mechanism that the YEA has created its own pathway to influencing G20 leaders. Despite not sitting within the broader engagement group framework, the YEA has had success in ensuring entrepreneurship remains on the G20 agenda. While difficult to measure, the YEA played an important role in putting entrepreneurs on the Y20 agenda in Australia, which eventually made it to the leaders’ communiqué and has since endured as an important feature in subsequent years.
The second unofficial engagement group is the G(irls)20. While the primary purpose of the G(irls)20 is to achieve a range of its own strategic objectives including ensuring girls have a place at the decision making table, it specifically lobbies G20 governments on issues facing women and girls globally. There is no formal pathway for the G(Girls)20 through the G20 mechanics, but I have observed its engagement through the W20 specifically, and there remains further opportunity to carve out a greater role in this particular official group. The G(Girls)20 might look to the YEA model for engagement with the B20, to create a formal pathway.
Finding the strength in mandate creep
In 2019 there were eight official engagement groups, in 2015 at my first G20, there were only five (B20, C20, L20, T20, Y20). Since then, Turkey officially included the Women 20, Germany the Science 20, and Japan the Urban 20. Adding or removing engagement groups from the official track is at the discretion of the president country. The addition of engagement groups fits the assumption that each presidency of the G20 hopes to add its own flavour to the recipe.
One might be quick to criticise the broadening scope of engagement groups, that is creates a crowded market place for policy ideas. Yet, there are several reasons to keep this soup cooking.
Firstly, the lack of structure and fluidity of groups means that they can be incredibly agile in their agenda. In a rapidly changing world, contrasted by slow moving bureaucracy, a global forum that can innovate one year to the next is unique. Depending on the internal mechanics of each engagement group, it is possible for member states to address urgent issues that arise in that year.
Secondly, there is strength in numbers and increasingly we are observing cooperation between engagement groups to drive a particular agenda. In Japan, there was a joint statement on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work. In Argentina, there were three joint statements; one focused on corruption, one on education, and one on the gender labour gap.
Thirdly, like any track II dialogue, the engagement groups are a mechanism to further a government’s agenda and equally, for civil society to advise their government on economic policy issues. This feedback loop, while not without its flaws, is the backroom diplomacy that often goes unnoticed and unmeasured.
Finally, the G20 engagement groups are civil society groups that broaden the opportunity for influence in international and domestic policy. To the extent that individuals, organisations and business can become representatives of their country in an engagement group, they may influence policy, hold their government to account, while advancing or otherwise seeking to modify its agenda and do so in a manner that is relatively fast.
Preserving the alphabet soup
The intention of an optimistic description and analysis of G20 engagement groups is not to dismiss the flaws of this existing process. It does, however, outlay the little understood model of non-government engagement in the G20 and argues that this is a recipe worth preserving. With greater understanding of these groups, it is possible in future to undertake further work in proposing improved models for efficiency and measurability of influence in the G20 agenda.
Erin Watson-Lynn is a Senior Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre and the current Head Delegate to the W20 in Saudi Arabia. This commentary is informed by discussions had at the Griffith Asia Institute 9th Annual Australia-Japan Dialogue, themed The G20: Outcomes, Issues and Prospects, held in Brisbane 29 November 2019.