From the TUC

How to assess the G20

03 Apr 2009, by in Economics, International

One reason I’ve not been blogging much in recent weeks is that I’ve been devoting large parts of my waking hours (with many others) to organising last Saturday’s splendid Put People First march for jobs, justice and climate. Now of course the G20 summit is over and we are in the post-match analysis stage.

Yesterday everyone with an interest in its conclusions were publishing instant reactions (including the TUC) and trying to get in the media. But something as complex and far-reaching as a summit – particularly this one – does not lend itself to easy or swift analysis. Indeed we probably won’t be able to give a real verdict for about a decade. But this did not stop any of us producing a rapid judgment and there were some interesting differences in emphasis from organisations that make up Put People First.

Of course organisations will judge the G20 against their own priority issues. For example green groups were hardly likely to be enthusiastic. While no-one expected a major move on climate change as that is the proper business of the Copenhagen climate conference, China clearly prevented the summit adopting much at all about moving to a low carbon economy and a green new deal. Promising credentials to groups and then withdrawing them at the last minute as appears to have happened would not have made people more well-disposed to the communique either, as appears to have happened.

But there are also real difficulties for all organisations that flow from a basic dilemma. Should  you make your judgment against a realistic assessment of the possible outcomes? Or should you apply a more fundamental test of how it measures up against what you judge to be needed.

Each approach has its pros and cons.

Unions are all about negotiation and dealing with the possible. We are therefore instinctively in the first camp. That has the obvious advantage that it makes it easier to engage with the process and possibly secure progress as you are arguing within the bounds of the possible. On the other hand it does make it more likely that you will be manipulated by the management of expectations and the presentation of outcomes. Some of this has definitely been going on over the last few days with, for example, a real boost for IMF resources being spun as a major fiscal stimulus across the whole world economy . And engaging with the art of the possible can lead to you compromising your principles or getting hung up on relatively minor issues to the neglect of the big picture.

The advantages and disadvantages of starting with more fundamental tests are something of a mirror image of the ‘realistic’ option.  If you think the whole process is illegitimate or so far away from what needs to be done, it is hard to have any influence with decision makers. Indeed you may not want it. It gives you a very clear purchase point from which to judge the outcome, but can leave you looking like marginal outsiders. It can be dispiriting to be mobilised in a campaign only to be told that you have failed to achieve anything.

Neither approach is always appropriate in every situation – and more importantly there is often room for both with what can be a creative tension between insiders and outsiders.

What does all this mean for judging the G20 outcome? In fact it’s a textbook case of the dilemma.

On the one hand much of the language used in the communique marks a very significant break from the kind of arguments that we once read in G8 summit documents. But on the other hand there is not the call for the kind of fundamental re-organisation of the world economic system that is needed to really bear down on poverty, inequality and unemployment.

On the one hand there is some tough language on tax havens and financial regulation, on the other it is far from clear how and whether they will be carried out in practice.

There is more money for the IMF, but not quite as much of it is new money as headlines suggest, the IMF remains unreformed without a proper say for developing countries and may still impose damaging conditions on countries that need its help.

On the one hand the G20 goes wider than the rich man’s club of the G8 and involves some interesting progressive leaders such as Brazil’s Lula and Argentina’s Kirchner. On the other it still excludes most nations and gives some not very progressive countries like China and Saudi Arabia a voice that they might earn through economic muscle but not from adherence to democratic norms and human rights.

There are interesting proposals to ensure that we do  not suffer the same kind of financial melt-down in the future, but not a great deal that is going to deliver jobs quickly to those made unemployed by the last one.

It may make damaging big-country protectionism less likely, but has failed to recognise the different arguments about trade for developing countries.

So there is much that can be welcomed as progress, but also gaps and problems. The progressive decisions may not be delivered, but on the other hand the new tone and sense of a different direction may help overcome the problem issues in the future.

Or to put it in the old cliché, you can view the glass as half-empty or as half-full.

On balance I am more on the half-full side. There has been more progress that I thought possible last week, and a huge difference with the tone and content of pre-crash summit statements. I think it’s right to recognise movement in the right direction, even if slow and inadequate in some respects. I think campaigners have made a difference. In the UK it’s been interesting to see how ministers have picked up the language used by Put People First, and those who have gone on the march or got involved in other ways should feel that their involvement was worthwhile.

Most importantly the progressive language used in the communique and by ministers around the summit, gives campaigners real leverage in future. If this is the beginning of the end of tax secrecy havens as we have been told, then this gives a real ability to hold governments to account if it isn’t.

But it is also right to pause and remember that it is a very long way from being the ideal summit communique, and it is good to have voices that emphasise that too.

It is very easy for ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ to fall out about these differences in emphasis, but there is a strong argument for saying that worthwhile change usually comes about through a combination of both. Passion and anger may not engage with detail. But it often takes them to start anyone engaging with the detail.