As India assumes the Presidency of G20, Harsh Jaitli, CEO of Voluntary Action Network of India (VANI), a national network of Indian voluntary development organisations, speaks at length about the importance of having a robust C20 platform in an interview with Shalini Yog Shah.
What is G20 and the significance of C20?
Harsh Jaitli: The Group of 20 (G20) was created in 1999 in response to the Asian financial crisis that occurred in 1997-98. Twenty of the largest economies of the world, which currently account for more than 80 per cent of world GDP, 75 per cent of global trade and 60 per cent of global population, developed this platform. The current members of G20 are USA, UK, Japan, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina, Canada, France, Italy, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and the European Union (EU). It started primarily as a forum of the finance ministers and central bank governors of the countries, but later it transformed into a group led by the heads of the states and governments. Gradually, it not only became the premier forum for international economic cooperation, but also holistic socio-economic development of the planet. Now in its expanded spectrum, it includes issues like trade, climate change, sustainable development, energy, environment, and anti-corruption. The decline in the influence of the United Nation’s mechanism has also contributed towards an increase in the influence of G20. Some of the emerging economies of the world have been demanding reforms in the UN system as it represents the dominance of some of the countries. The UN Security Council failed to resolve major conflicts of the world due to the use of veto by its members. Similarly, least developed countries could not get any tangible benefit from the development projects whereas bilateral aid was more effective. The worst time came when WHO failed to bring consensus in COVID-19 mitigation strategies. This dissatisfaction led to the rise of G20 as the major platform for discussions and decisions. Gradually, the scope of G20 started increasing with the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) agenda and annual summit system. Various working groups around critical themes were organised. Since 2011, G20 started having annual summits and a rotational Presidency.
One among the official Engagement Groups within the G20 structure, C20 reflects the interests and stakes of the global civil society in the declarations and decisions of G20.
G20 and its engagement groups are without a permanent secretariat while the Presidency rotates annually. Each year, the secretariat is responsible for maintaining the continuity of the agenda, and is aided by the previous and the next chair of the G20 – collectively called Troika. The G20 process is led by the ‘sherpas’ of member countries, who are personal emissaries of the leaders. The sherpas oversee negotiations over the course of the year, discussing agenda points for the summit and coordinating the substantive work of G20. The G20’s work is divided into two tracks: The Finance Track and the Sherpa Track. Within the two tracks, there are thematically oriented working groups in which representatives from the relevant ministries of the G20 members as well as from the invited/ guest countries and various international organisations participate. The working groups meet regularly throughout the term of each Presidency. The agenda is also influenced by current economic developments as well as by the tasks and goals agreed upon in previous years. G20 holds a multi-year mandate to ensure institutional continuity.
Once the spectrum of conversations within G20 started expanding, it started influencing almost all aspects of humanity. Various stakeholder groups wanted to participate, contribute, and learn from G20. This led to formation of Engagement Groups like T20 (Think Tank), B20 (Business 20), W20 (Women 20), Y20 (Youth 20), L20 (Labour 20), C20 (Civil 20), etc. (1)
One among the official Engagement Groups within the G20 structure, C20 reflects the interests and stakes of the global civil society in the declarations and decisions of G20. Till 2013, there was no Engagement Group for the civil society and the civil society organisations (CSOs) used to participate as media representatives. However, during the Russian Presidency, C20 was formally recognised. Over the years, it has expanded its scope and become an important stakeholder. The main purpose of the C20 is to represent and articulate the voice and expectations of the global civil society in front of the leaders of the most influential countries. The introduction of the SDG framework in G20 also provided an effective premise of engagement for C20.
C20 also has a vital role to play when the space to learn and share among the civil society is getting limited due to various restrictions on free flow of ideas and resources.
The civil society plays a pivotal role in dissemination and demystification of technical conversations in G20 processes. The documents produced by the C20 are supposed to provide feedback and suggestions. (2)
C20 also has a vital role to play when the space to learn and share among the civil society is getting limited due to various restrictions on free flow of ideas and resources. The civil society is integral to the modern-day development discourse with their vast field level community experiences and interactions with policymakers. This strength of the civil society makes a very important contribution in inclusive decision making, policy implementation and achieving policy coherence. It is the responsibility of the host country to organise an inclusive and vibrant C20 process.
How do you think G20 as an institution has evolved, and as a corollary C20? What are some of the systemic challenges for C20?
Harsh Jaitli: The last few decades have seen countries questioning the effectiveness of UN as well as many global institutions in solving global crises. At the peak of COVID-19 crisis, due to differences of opinion on origin, nature and scale of the pandemic, WHO became the target of attack by many countries. It was alleged that China started supporting it to get favourable reports. The emerging economies have always questioned the logic of Security Council’s composition. All these differing opinions restrict the relevance and operating space of UN and many other multilateral institutions like World Bank and IMF. Many emerging economies had started asking for space at the table as decision- makers rather than being observers. The situation became critical during the global economic slump in the late 1990s, when traditional structures and the exclusive group of seven rich countries (G7) were not able to manage the global economic crises at hand. The need was felt to create a platform, which brings developed economies and countries representing emerging economy markets together. Global southern countries thereby secured a space on the conversation table through the G20, which includes countries like India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia. The tradition of inviting countries other than formal G20 members to its meetings further strengthened the relevance of this platform. Another reason for G20 gaining global relevance was the flexibility of agenda. The countries, especially the ‘Troika’, could decide on contemporary issues. The conversations, which had started with solving economic issues, now include SDGs also. Finally it is the structure of G20, which made it more inclusive. Various tracks, working groups and their live wire engagements with relevant ministries enrich the outcome of G20 processes. The concept of Engagement Groups like L20, C20, Y20, W20 and B20 enhances the participation of people’s collectives and institutions outside government structures. Similarly, C20, which was formed in 2013, got prominence. The credit of making G20 relevant, vibrant, and inclusive also goes to these Engagement Groups. The Engagement Groups of G20 include very powerful groups like B20 and T20, which are not only closer to the governments but also resource rich to carry out much effective research and advocacy. The global civil society community on the other hand, also used the channel of Engagement Groups to collectivise and strengthen South- South Cooperation.
The financial limitations however restrict the physical participation of the larger CSO community to develop more comprehensive position papers on various themes under consideration.
The space in the structure as an Engagement Group provides the civil society with an opportunity to not only influence and participate in dialogues but also keep itself updated on issues due to interactions with policymakers. The financial limitations however restrict the physical participation of the larger CSO community to develop more comprehensive position papers on various themes under consideration. Just like L20 or W20, C20 cannot even organise physical meetings without the logistic support and consent of governments, which sometimes effects and inhibits independent participation and effective advocacy. Another challenge comes from the very nature of the G20 structure. As we know, it does not have a permanent secretariat and systems, priorities, resources, and data move along with the host Presidency. This limits G20 primarily as an event-based intervention. It is seen that most of the time the civil society is slow in developing thematic papers and policy packs as it has to start collecting information from a scratch. The increasing number of engagement groups with overlapping mandates is also diluting the space for policy influence. As many times, engagement groups see the same issue from a different vantage point, it can lead to conflicting proposals.
VANI and you have been majorly involved in coordinating civil society efforts here in India towards C20. What would be the key message from you to the Indian G20 Presidency?
Harsh Jaitli: One of the major challenges faced by Indian CSOs was to develop the ability to understand global issues, and their link with the grassroots. This soft power was not effectively utilised for the benefit of people. The first stage of VANI’s engagement with the support of Heinrich Boell Stiftung (hbs) was to empower Indian CSOs so that they could be more effective. VANI conducted numerous research studies using participatory methodology to understand the global footprints of Indian CSOs. The second strategy used was to organise educational events. C20 is one of the important platforms, which was seen as a vehicle to develop solidarity among CSOs. VANI, along with civil society national platforms of other C20 countries like Indonesia, South Korea, USA, UK, Japan, Germany, and Brazil, worked towards strengthening the voice of the civil society. Since its beginning, member countries have used C20 as a platform to engage global civil society, but unfortunately due to the absence of a fixed space and structure, it is highly vulnerable. As mentioned earlier, the effectiveness of Engagement Groups like C20 are heavily dependent on the host government for space and resources. Structurally, it is also up to the government to decide the number, scope and coordination of Engagement Groups. C20 has two types of functions: First is to ensure outreach, organise thematic working groups and facilitate participation; the second is the thematic work of developing policy packs and position papers. The first role is that of ‘secretariat’, which is performed by the national platforms. Almost 60 countries of the world have national platforms, which can also be called an apex body, primarily created to strengthen the civil society movement in those countries. These are membership-based entities normally having outreach with a majority of CSOs in the countries and also have links with collectives of CSOs. In countries where there are no national platforms, this role is played by other national collectives. It was during the Japanese Presidency of C20, a common framework of this structure for C20 was agreed among CSOs. Unfortunately in India, the C20 secretariat formed by the government does not include the country’s national platform i.e VANI. Therefore, within the given reality, VANI and other CSO collectives have taken to ensure the effectiveness of working groups.
VANI, along with civil society national platforms of other C20 countries like Indonesia, South Korea, USA, UK, Japan, Germany, and Brazil, worked towards strengthening the voice of the civil society.
What has been the experience of VANI as a national civil society platform in channelling the lead C20 role for itself? What is your engagement strategy/ next step?
Harsh Jaitli: One of the most positive gains from global CSO activism has been the formation and strengthening of C20 since 2013. In spite of the fluid and event-based structure of G20, C20 has managed to contribute significantly to the G20 discourse. Of course, there have been ups and downs in the engagement levels based on the civic space made available by the host country. India being the world’s largest democracy famous for its vibrant civil society, there is much hope from its G20 Presidency. During the Japanese Presidency in 2019, the framework for organising C20 was agreed upon among CSOs. On one hand, steering and advisory committees were suggested to run the operations smoothly and on the other, considering the convening role of national platforms, it was suggested that these national platforms lead the C20 secretariat. Once, it was confirmed that India was going to host the Presidency of G20 in 2023, VANI started mobilising local CSOs and initiated conversations with the government to provide due space to C20 as per the proposed 2019 framework mechanism. VANI also saw this as an important milestone in the journey of Indian CSOs as recently India completed 75 years of our Independence- C20 being seen as a major platform to showcase achievements and innovations of the sector. Indian CSOs also have a very long history of partnership with the government and private sector. With this framework in mind with also with view to make Indian C20 process engage with CSOs of the Global South, VANI had conversations with the Ministry of External Affairs.
The current situation forces the global civil society to reflect on the need to have a permanent structure beyond the event-based approach of these newly created global platforms.
The second stream of VANI’s work was to collectivize and mobilise Indian CSOs into thematic groups so that substantial conversations could take place. Being a national platform, VANI relies on the subject specialties of its CSO members and their outreach. These mobilization efforts resulted in CSOs being organised in eight thematic groups. These groups were led by organisations having subject specialisation. This was also seen as the climax of VANI’s work of at least last one decade, of mobilising grassroots CSOs on global discourses.
The third step was to conduct participatory research on the issues relevant for the C20 platform in the Indian context. As mentioned, a need was felt to disseminate knowledge on the achievements of the C20 processes. Therefore, a snapshot study was conducted to understand the impact of C20 communiques for last five years on G20 decision making processes.
Interestingly, the processes in India unfolded in a quite surprising way. VANI found no place in the newly formed C20 secretariat. As mentioned above, the national platforms are not experts on the technical themes or engaged in service delivery. They primarily convene, mobilise and collectivise the sector to have a constructive engagement with external stakeholders. So, under this new composition of the C20 secretariat, wherein the convening role was allotted to another entity, other than the national platform, VANI does not find for itself any place that adds substance to the ongoing process.
However, the efforts of VANI to mobilise, and facilitate the drafting of thematic notes continues. VANI will keep working with the eight thematic C20 groups to develop policy papers, which will be shared with the C20 secretariat. Actually, this situation is not new for the global civil society. We as a sector always have struggled to acquire space on the table, which remains fragile most times. The current situation forces the global civil society to reflect on the need to have a permanent structure beyond the event-based approach of these newly created global platforms.