A Canadian initiative for this year's G7 Summit: new faces for a more inclusive G20

Canada’s G7 agenda already includes several priorities, such as inclusive growth, gender equality and climate change. John Sinclair proposes adding one more — building support for the addition of two new G20 seats.

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January 23, 2018
Participants of the G20 take their seats in Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin

These are troubled days for the world. However, Canada is in the once-in-seven-years privileged position of hosting the G7 Summit — the annual meeting attended by leaders of seven of the world’s most powerful nations.

The agenda for this key, two-day meeting, running from June 8-9 in Charlevoix, Quebec, is Canada’s to shape. Some broad G7 agenda items are already clear: inclusive growth, gender equality, climate change and jobs. And the US is bound to add Korea and probably migration. 

This article is about none of the priorities above specifically, but indirectly all of them. It is not about more aid money, although that is still a vital lubricant for the poorest nations. Instead, it proposes a new initiative that responds to a world of emerging economies — ones that are becoming critical future economic and political partners for Canada — and to the new geopolitics of international assistance.

I am suggesting an initiative that is innovative and essentially cost-free: the enlisting of G7 members to join us in proposing changes that would transform the G20 into a truly global body, one with stronger international legitimacy.

How? This would be done by a simple but politically delicate expedient: two new permanent, full seats would be added to the G20, selected by and from the world’s least developed (LDCs) and fragile (so-called “g7+”) countries.  The goal would be to include the voice of the often-overlooked poorest at this table for international policy deliberation.

Today’s G20 is largely seen as the tool of powerful nations from both the developed and developing worlds. The organization was conceived by Canadian finance minister Paul Martin in 1999 as a select club for finance ministers and chosen friends of the G7 countries. Called upon to tackle the 2008 global financial crisis, the group was reborn as the G20 Leaders’ Summit, with the same member countries (none from the poorest nations).

My proposed G7 initiative would see a highly respected middle power, Canada, with star leadership in its current prime minister, boldly promoting an upgrade of that Leaders’ G20. It would be transformed into an enriched G22 by adding two new seats from amongst the poorest nations. A partnership of G7 and G20 members would help transform an already key global governance forum, the G20, into a more inclusive, truly global body, with enhanced credibility in the fight against poverty. 

Addressing a gap

Our troubled world is a result not just of the disruptive leadership of our neighbour to the south but also the hesitation of other major powers to step up to the leadership plate.

Too often in recent years, the G7 and G20 have been seen as rival bodies seeking to shape global change, as opposed to a partnership that must be strengthened to be effective. This gap exists despite the fact that the G20’s membership was hand-picked by G7 finance ministers.

The G20 brings together 19 countries, plus the EU. Its core members are the original seven of the G7 plus the five countries who comprise the BRICS, the most important of which is China, self-identified as the world’s emerging leader. There are another seven middle-income countries as full members, including Turkey, South Africa and Mexico. On top of these, each G20 chair can invite as guests — essentially observers — a limited number of individual countries or preferred international bodies. A few international agencies, notably the World Bank, IMF and UN, also regularly attend as advisors.

Adding two seats that could be occupied on a rotational basis by the poorest countries would be the first-ever change to the G20’s formal membership. Even if only two, these new voices at the table should be enough to shift the tone of G20 discussions on new policy design and priorities to be more poverty-sensitive. The choice of two new members would provide equal voices for the two formal poverty groupings in the UN system, the LDCs and the g7+. A larger number would probably be too much for G20 traditionalists to swallow. The two together would effectively speak for and represent all the countries and populations ‘not to be left behind,’ responding to this core goal of the UN’s 2030 agenda, to which all UN members, Canada included, have committed.

This could be implemented in a matter of months once a core G7-G20 consensus is reached, perhaps even in the next G20 meeting slated for late November in Argentina. For the 2019 summit, a G22 logo would need to be designed and a few extra chairs may need to be placed around the table — perhaps by squeezing out some of those observer guests to the back row. Clearly no huge logistical challenge. 

In framing our expectations, we need to recognize that the G7 and G20 are only leadership fora. Member countries can only drive implementation of their policy recommendations by exercising their substantial political power, ideally via trusting partnerships with each other and international organizations like the UN and World Bank, and also now with China’s $100 billion Infrastructure Bank. These broader partnerships would allow that more inclusive G20 to mobilize the resources — human, financial and technical — needed to meet the evolving needs of the poorest.

Expanding the G20 would make both the G20 and G7 more responsive to the interests and needs of still poor but increasingly demanding low-income developing countries. Often, these institutions have seemed more a theatre for competitive, often repetitive “squabbling” between the voices of developed and emerging economies. Adding two long-absent voices of the poorest and fragile states around the G20 table would hopefully reduce this wasteful competition and bring more attention to the needs of the most vulnerable. The G20 and G7 together need to act more forcefully to reverse the largely self-made damage to our environment and the deep-rooted inequalities of opportunities and rights that still face women, girls and other vulnerable communities, including by facilitating the implementation of Canada’s new gender–sensitive Feminist International Assistance Policy.   

How to create a new, more inclusive G20?

Canada, once it decided politically to take this initiative forward, would need to mobilize its G7 sherpa, the title given to the senior official who leads the negotiation process. He would need to have extensive discussions with other national G7 sherpas to build the essential consensus. While the initiative would be Canada’s, the challenge would quickly become one of getting other G7 countries to support it. 

Given that much of the final critical work would need to be done jointly with G20 colleagues, it might be sensible to engage early on some critical G20 actors, notably the sherpa from the 2018 G20 Summit’s host, Argentina. It might be good diplomacy to informally involve him in the G7 sherpas’ pre-consultations on this specific topic. China, as the leading non-G7 actor in the G20, could perhaps also be involved, especially if sympathetic to the idea.  

Consensus–building would be critical work at both G7 and G20 sherpa stages. Only for topics where no sherpa-driven consensus can be found do country leaders need to engage in further negotiations.

Creating the two new permanent seats reserved for poorest countries would become a key task if the 2018 G20 meeting endorses such an initiative. The new LDC member would be selected by other LDCs, and, similarly, a fragile-state member would be selected by g7+ members. The LDC and g7+ groups (which substantially overlap) would set their own rules for rotating their G20 members, maybe every three to four years. 

What's in it for Canada?

There are clear advantages that could emerge for Canada from this initiative, even given the challenges of implementation.

First, the initiative is a brand-new proposal. It is bold and innovative, not routine and predictable. On the positive side, the simple act of proposing this initiative would indicate that Canada respects the evolving geopolitics of North-South relations. It would signal to the world that Canada is indeed “back” and specifically supports the UN’s 2030 goal of “no one left behind.”

This leadership move would hopefully be viewed positively by many of the developing countries who will be key voters in the upcoming UN Security Council elections. (Canada’s two competitors, Norway and Ireland, are both very pro-poor activist donors).

The biggest benefit of course is that adding two new faces would critically and beneficially change the tone and focus of global policy dialogue in the G20 and beyond. They would represent a boost to G20 legitimacy.

No G7 or G20 member would want to be seen as the spoiler blocking this cost-free initiative, one that would be cheered by the world’s poorest countries as well as by politically active civil society organizations and international commentators. (Of course, the US voice is especially unpredictable.) 

There would be challenges. This initiative would add to the number of new ideas that Canada will be promoting at the summit. Herding the G7 cats towards a consensus could be difficult, especially if they fear new pressures for global policy action might arise, driven by these poorest countries, as future equals in the G20.   

One or two countries or organizations who have become regular, informal guests might worry that they could eventually get squeezed out. Also, some in the G20 might grumble that this is another move by an overly assertive G7 (hence the need to get Argentina on board from the start).

As for next steps, a green light would add quite a few tasks for Canada. Critically, this proposal would need some initial salesmanship by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to key European G7 leaders (especially Germany, France and the UK).

The ball is now in Canada’s court. Nobody is pressing Canada to act, but this is equally not the time to be cautious and wary. Rather, Canada should be demonstrating it is capable of bold, innovative action as this year’s G7 chair. Otherwise the initiative might be unreasonably dismissed as just another burden. What we have here, in this period of global uncertainties, is a unique chance for Canada to show its empathy for the world’s most vulnerable and their nations, and to be recognized as a caring country.