The Group of 20 (G20) is one of the developed world’s most comprehensive forums among economic groupings. It was founded in 1999 and comprises 19 of the developed world’s economic powers plus the European Union (EU).
In addition to regular meetings between G20 finance ministers and central bank governors, a G20 summit convenes every two years. In June 2019, it will be held in Osaka in Japan.
For a decade now, African attendance has been observed repeatedly at G20 summits. South Africa is a member state of the G20, but a number of African organisations, including the African Union (AU), have also been invited to attend G20 summits and participate in their discussions, though only as visitors or observers and not as policy-makers.
The AU first attended a G20 summit in Toronto, Canada, in June 2010. Since then, the Union and its economic development programme, known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), have been regularly invited to attend G20 summits.
With the frequent attendance of the AU at G20 summits comes the opportunity for the AU to acquire membership of the group itself.
On the one hand, there is the precedent of the EU’s membership of the G20 along with the membership of four of its countries – Germany, France, the UK and Italy – in this influential group.
On the other hand, the AU ranks 11th in the world in terms of its total gross domestic product, which also qualifies the Union for membership of the G20.
These two factors underline the importance of benefitting from Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU and its international weight to launch the first official African initiative for the AU to join the G20 as a member.
Despite the fact that the agenda of the G20 summit in Osaka has not been announced, a number of indicators appeared in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech at the closing session of the previous G20 summit held in Buenos Aires in Argentina in 2018 and reflecting Japan’s interest in certain crucial issues.
Shinzo’s speech focused on achieving a human-centred future society that would be free, open, comprehensive and sustainable. His speech indicated the adoption of a comprehensive vision whose framework centres on integrating all members of society in the process of development, bearing in mind that the individual is the focus of this and its goal.
G20 summits have also increasingly given more attention to African issues. During China’s presidency of the G20 in 2016, it focused on supporting production in Africa.
The following year, Germany, presiding over the G20, suggested a “Compact with Africa” initiative and presented it at the G20 Insights Platform after the conclusion of the G20 summit in Hamburg.
The idea was to connect the AU’s 2063 Vision with the UN Sustainable Development Strategy for 2030, in addition to increasing cooperation and fostering partnership between the AU and G20 think tanks.
Although Argentina did not launch an initiative targeting Africa when it chaired the G20, it did focus on popular diplomacy to foster cooperation.
All this shows that there is a genuine opportunity for including African perspectives in G20 discussions on global issues that directly affect the economic and development prospects of the African continent. But putting these ideas in proper perspective can only be done by dealing with Africa as an equal partner.
Events over the past decade have proven that the AU has the chance to earn full membership of the G20. However, in order to do so, the African discourse will need to focus on bridging the gap between the two organisations of the AU and the G20.
The AU needs to concentrate less on the inequality between Africa and the G20, even as African countries continue to suffer from poor infrastructure, high unemployment and slow regional integration.
Most of the G20’s interaction with Africa also still takes place through development working groups that focus only on the bases of development, such as the elimination of poverty.
The more Africa’s discourse concentrates only on what the continent can receive from the G20, the less the group will look to Africa as a potential or equal partner.
Another issue concerns Africa’s participation mechanisms and engagement in policy-making and the outcomes of the upcoming Osaka meeting.
Shinzo’s speech suggested that the AU could adopt a number of alternative approaches to make a concrete contribution here. Environmental and energy issues, as well as the aging of many societies, are at the forefront of the Japanese human-centred strategy.
This is particularly significant, since in addition to the vast natural resources of the continent, Africa’s capital lies in its being the world’s most youthful continent.
Africa’s rich culture increases the chance of finding common ground with Japan’s human-centred strategy, since Africa’s culture is community-oriented, not individual-based, and it seeks to foster dependence on man and not on machines.
By not focusing on the traditional progress-versus-backwardness approach and by concentrating on human-development issues, there is a chance to find a comfortable meeting point between the AU and the G20 based on equality and partnership for the sake of human development.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The African Union in the G20