Frank Brennan SJ.  The G20 Agenda and Pope Francis

Nov 13, 2014

The leaders of the world’s 19 largest economies (together with the EU) are meeting in Brisbane this weekend at the annual G20 meeting.  Australia is the host and Prime Minister Tony Abbott is the president this year.  The host country gets to put its stamp on the agenda.  Last year at St Petersburg, the G20 acknowledged the “need to work to ensure that growth is strong, sustainable, inclusive and balanced”.   At these meetings, a lot of word-smithing goes on even before the world leaders disembark their planes and change into the compulsory conference shirts.  In the lead up to this meeting, Australia has been wary about the word “inclusive”, preferring a commitment to achieving “strong, sustainable and balanced growth”.  When the G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors met in Cairns as guests of Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey in February, they set a goal of economic growth “at least 2 percent above the currently projected level in the next five years”.    Since then the IMF has twice downgraded its global growth forecasts in light of the weaker than expected global activity, volatility in the financial markets, and geopolitical tensions.  Back then no one was talking about Ebola or the need to go to war against the Islamic State.

The C20 steering committee which convened a national summit of civil society in June has been agitating the need for our leaders to have a keen eye to social inclusion and the reduction of inequality.  They have also urged the Australians to put aside the domestic politics on climate change, insisting that it be “a separate and specific item on the G20 agenda”.  No doubt the freshly minted climate change agreement between Barack Obama and Xi Jinping will be a major talking point in Brisbane, whatever the host’s discomfort.

There has been a lot of common ground amongst the official engagement groups which have been meeting in the lead-up to the G20.  They include the B20 (business), C20 (civil society), L20 (labour), T20 (think tanks) and Y20 (young people).  Everyone welcomes the G20’s commitment to financial regulation reforms, modernising the international tax system, addressing corruption, and strengthening energy market resilience.  Not surprisingly, the C20 has called the G20 back to key principles like inclusion, poverty alleviation, sustainable growth and gender equity.  There is no magic in untramelled economic growth which exacerbates inequality already galloping at rates never before experienced.  Though the G20 has committed to closing the gender gap by 25% by 2025, the C20 has pointed out that “closing the participation gap for women alone could deliver the G20’s stated growth target”.   If the G20 is going to engage in pie-in-the-sky economic planning such as an added 2% in growth despite the downturns all about, why not factor in some social equity?  For example, why not commit to increasing the incomes for the bottom 20% of households in each G20 country by 2%?

Last year, President Vladimir Putin invited Pope Francis to send a letter prior to the summit; and the Pope was happy to do so.  This year, Tony Abbott did the same.  Pope Francis’ letter acknowledges unapologetically the economic achievements of the G20 since its first summit during the 2008 financial crisis.  Given that the summits have often taken place against the backdrop of military conflicts and disagreement between G20 members, the pope expresses his gratitude “that those disagreements have not prevented genuine dialogue within the G20, with regard both to the specific agenda items and to global security and peace”.  As you would expect, Francis says “more is required”.  He focuses particularly on “the living conditions of poorer families and the reduction of all forms of unacceptable inequality”.  He rightly identifies economic inequality and social exclusion as contributors to world turmoil.  He sees financial unaccountability and misconceived economic policies as deterrents to justice and world peace.  Having spoken of human rights abuses, war, the plight of refugees and disregard for humanitarian law, he places the economic reform agenda within the context of justice and peace:

The international community, and in particular the G20 Member States, should also give thought to the need to protect citizens of all countries from forms of aggression that are less evident but equally real and serious.  I am referring specifically to abuses in the financial system such as those transactions that led to the 2008 crisis, and more generally, to speculation lacking political or juridical constraints and the mentality that maximization of profits is the final criterion of all economic activity.  A mindset in which individuals are ultimately discarded will never achieve peace or justice.  Responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must therefore be an essential element of any political decision, whether on the national or the international level.       

It is heartening that so many world leaders can gather in peace committing their countries to an economic reform agenda for growth.  Such dialogue as the culmination of ongoing planning by countless government officials from across the globe might contribute to better quality investment in infrastructure, reduced barriers to trade, increased competition, and “a boost of over $2 trillion to global GDP with the promise of millions of additional jobs” – to quote from the G20 agenda.  But unless the poor, alienated and excluded of the globe share the fruits, our leaders will be building on sand.  Next year’s summit is in Turkey with Prime Minister Davutoglu the host.  It will be the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove.  There will be more than economics to discuss.


Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Gasson Professor at the Boston College Law School, has been a member of the C20 Steering Committee

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