C20: deepening civic engagement towards Indian presidency of G20



The COVID 19 crises is far from over and has impacted countries worldwide in unprecedented scales. India continues to grapple with one of the highest rates of infection worldwide, with recovery indistinct. Imposing economic and social hardships all across the country, the pandemic has exposed the fragility of our public and social services and the democratic set-up at large. The scale of the calamity necessitates a coordinated response, and the shaping of a responsible recovery mechanism. Civil society is making critical contributions, and the premier Government think tank NITI Aayog, reached out to over 92,000 non-governmental and civil society organizations to boost cross-sectoral collaboration.

At the level of global governance, the G20 ostensibly has risen to the occasion and declared to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy, with commitments to defeat the pandemic.  With UN losing steam and erosion of other multilateral institutions, the G20 as a group of most economically powerful nations has been making decisions that affect 90% of the global economy. It rose to significance during the 2008’s financial crises channeling high-level multilateral diplomacy, based on an approach that global crises require agility in finding urgent solutions. It’s to be recognized that as a shared space, G20 despite its many criticisms, is one of the few institutions for governments to find solutions to humanity’s common challenges.  Will G20 be able to deliver on a robust response mechanism within a globally co-ordinated framework to deal with pandemic crises?

The Pandemic and post pandemic phase will be testing for the G20. With India holding the G20 in 2022, it will be for the Indian leadership to deliver on the aspirations of a range of stakeholders invested in development initiatives. "The COVID-19 crisis has made it clear that we need economic, social and environmental sustainability together with sustainable healthcare. The Sustainable Agenda must be the strategy to lift us out of this unprecedented crisis”  European Economic and Social Council  President Luca Jahier said in May “.  The emergence of Agenda 2030 and recognition by G20 to follow the Sustainable Development Goals for achieving critical objectives pushes for an increased participation and partnership with Civil Society, along SDG 17, on national and on international levels.

Given the scale and depth of global challenges, the voice of civil society is essential more than of all times now. Co-operation, collaboration and dialogue is not an option; it’s the urgent imperative. In the G20 virtual Summit in March 2020, PM Modi made a call for a humanitarian rather than economical and financial approach towards globalization and multilateralism. This is apparently most urgent for India to follow through as it deals with its worst economic contraction in four decades, accompanied with massive job losses, the poor and migrant labour class the worst off. Civil society has a critical role to follow through the leadership’s international intentions and commitments into domestic policy implementation; to ensure that there is no disconnect between rhetoric and reality.  

Voluntary Action Network of India, the apex body of voluntary development organizations in India, has been active in mobilizing Indian CSO’s by way of campaigns, workshops and analysis, tracking the commitments of India at the G20 Summits and their follow-up at ground. Their findings, as shown in their report “INDIA & G20: Analyzing Development Dimensions of Policy Priorities” indicate glaring development gaps and the absence of a meaningful partnership mechanism on lines of SDG 17, the evolution of which is critical to any serious pursuit of G20 objectives for development.

Participating since 2013, the C20 is one of the seven “Engagement Groups” that circle around the G20 and attempt to influence its decisions.The C20 and its working groups are the formal mechanisms through which civil society partakes in the G20 decision making process. Civil society liaisons with the working groups to feed into the agenda issues that are critical from citizen perspectives. Securing food, energy, biodiversity, universal financial inclusion, social inclusion, health security and promoting an enabling environment for civil society organizations are for example some grassroots developmental outlooks that are discussed in the publication “C20 Engagement Strategy for India’s Civil Society’ prepared by Voluntary Action Network of India”.

With democratic deficit writ large across global governance, C20 as an institutional arm of G20 appears to be an incongruity, although a welcome one. Nonetheless, its relative power to influence G20 policy outcomes is limited, challenged further in recent times due to curtailing CSO activities and political participation and likewise shrinking spaces for civil society voices across many G20 countries.

Civil society harbors a diversity of roles which are crucial for G20 to engage with. Its offers significant potential with respect to social enterprise, service-delivery, furthering rights, development and democracy. Moreover, civil society actors are not just watchdogs but bring to the table subject matter expertise as researchers, public policy analyst and innovators from myriad backgrounds. G20 must welcome these capacities as it does with the private sector and other lobbies. Noteworthy, is the experience with the ‘Anticorruption Working Group’ wherein civil society and private entities have received similar reception by the G20. This has been encouraging and the reciprocity needs to be extended to other thematic domains as well.

Quality Infrastructure Investment has emerged as one critical thematic indicator highlighted by the G20 for measuring and guiding national and global infrastructure spending and investment. The G20 Japanese presidency in 2019 had put Quality Infrastructure Investment in focus, though the approach had been endorsed in by the Group as early as 2016.  Governments nationally and globally have been filling gaps in existing and new Infrastructure from an extremely narrowly defined approach towards financing. Quality Infrastructure seeks to address the critical issues facing infrastructure development in terms of bringing a human centric approach, sustainability factor, environmental protection, safety of labour and employment and so on. The COVID 19 crisis, makes the need for Quality Infrastructure Investments ever more compelling as it can, in multiple ways help in the fight against Covid-19 (Refer: The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has published a factsheet which illustrates this).

India has a chance to set the agenda with renewed emphasis on Quality Infrastructure with the opportunity of hosting G20 in 2022. The publication “Civil society role in ensuring Quality Infrastructure’ by VANI points to the immense role civil society has in ensuring that Quality Infrastructure is implemented at country level. It also addresses the gaps in the engagement process of Multilateral Development Banks with civil society and makes it impending on development institutions to increase their dialogue and project implementation with civil society. It is hoped that the Indian G20 presidency provides civil society an important opportunity to have a say on what the G20 infrastructure priorities should be. VANI will be hosting the C20 in 2022 and in the run-up years is making efforts to mobilize the Indian CSO community on extracting productive inputs.

With India as G20 host country, there are legitimate public expectations of development issues being high on the agenda While the wider international community will be summoned, civil society must be treated as an equal development partner In the run up to the Indian presidency a set of crucial questions needs to be answered: What will be the operational mechanisms of forging open, proactive dialogues and an enabling framework for participation?- Who within the diversity of civil society will get to participate? Will India as a key proponent of South –South co-operation make a concerted and demonstrable shift to promote greater Global South engagement, in particular from low-income countries?

As the world descends to the 2022 Summit to chalk the future direction of global geo-polity, India will be celebrating its 75th year of Independence. It is for India to rise to the occasion and provide G20-2022 the wherewithal for civil society to flourish. India must seize the moment to showcase a thriving and inclusive model of multilateralism; to exhibit Indian civilizational vision of pluralism, democracy and participation. While COVID 19 is and will be testing humanity beyond proportions, actors can ill afford to work alone. To address this global challenge in an uncertain and turbulent world, civil society must emerge as a powerful 21st century collaborator and enabler of global policy processes.

Heinrich Boell Stiftung’s partner organization VANI has published the following three reports highlighting the role and urging for the voice of Civil Society as part of debates around G20 and Quality Infrastructure:

C20 Engagement Strategy for India's Civil Society, March 2019, VANI

Civil Society's role in ensuring Quality Infrastructure, November 2019, VANI

INDIA & G20: Analyzing Development Dimensions of Policy Priorities, November 2019, VANI