Accounting for Unaccountability

Garrett Wallace Brown

Last week the G20’s Development Working Group (DWG) released its accountability report on the fulfillment of 67 commitments originating from the Seoul Development Consensus for Shared Growth and its corresponding Multi-Year Action Plan on Development (MYAP). In this Report, the DWG assessed the nine pillars of MYAP —

  1. infrastructure,
  2. private investment and job creation,
  3. human resource development,
  4. trade,
  5. financial inclusion,
  6. resilient growth,
  7. food security,
  8. domestic resource mobilization, and
  9. knowledge sharing

— and tracked its other commitments on green growth, determining that 33 commitments have been met, 33 are still ongoing, and one has stalled. As the DWG’s first self-assessment exercise, the conclusions of this report were meant to underpin the St. Petersburg Development Outlook (SPDO) and frame future G20 development initiatives.

The rationale for the report came from the growing acknowledgement among DWG members in Los Cabos, Mexico that monitoring and assessment of its development commitments would be crucial for identifying implementation success, lessons learned, and locating ways forward. By reporting and communicating their findings, a further objective of the DWG report was to demonstrate the G20’s commitment to transparency and accountability as well as to make sure that the needs of developing countries were being sufficiently targeted and addressed.

This report comes at a time when experts have expressed doubts about whether the G20 is an appropriate forum for development. The G20 development agenda appears to lack a clear focus; the agenda is incoherent in relation to the overall G20 framework and the development agenda remains largely at the periphery of G20 declarations. In addition, although G20 countries make up around 85-90% of GDP output and 94% of official development assistance, 173 countries are not represented.

In many ways the DWG accountability report was designed to be a response to these criticisms. In assessing the G20 record on its 67 commitments, the DWG used a four-level matrix that categorized commitments by G20 members as those “completed,” those “on-track,” those “off-track,” or those that have “stalled.” Out of the 67 commitments identified, the G20 as a whole was seen as overwhelmingly meeting its commitments, with the report giving particular praise for creating “catalytic action among G20 members,” “establishing credible outreach to non-member countries,” and “fostering strong partnership with international organizations.”

Yet, there are considerable questions regarding the way the report generated its results and about how these results have been incorporated into the SPDO document. One obvious reason for concern is that there is no explanation regarding the criteria used to determine how a commitment has been met. These details become particularly important when considering the report’s distinction between on-track (26 in total) commitments and those that are off-track (7 in total), since both are combined under the 33 “on-going” commitments tabled for future assessment. If these off-track commitments are actually closer to stalling, then this paints a different picture. A more realistic number of stalled or near stalled commitments could be closer to eight. If this number is closer to the truth, G20 countries could be claiming that they are off the proverbial “hook” for their development obligations, when in actuality the overall state of their development efforts remain undernourished.

This ambiguity is exacerbated by the fact that the report only provides sparse details about the quality of the completed or on track commitments. For example, commitment seven to “undertake special measures for regional integration” was deemed by the DWG as completed. Yet when closely examined, it turns out that the deliverable was simply a list of recommendations made by the DWG, and these recommendations are linked to two other commitments that are significantly off-track. This raises serious questions about the overall quality or effectiveness of the actions behind G20 commitments, since it is unclear what the quality of the outcomes are, despite the fact that the DWG has assessed a particular output as completed.

Furthermore, many of the commitments associated with the G20 are also so general that it would be difficult to ever conclude these commitments were off-track. As an illustration: commitment sixty-six to “welcome the delivery of a non-prescriptive, voluntary toolkit of policy options for green growth” and commitment sixty-seven to “encourage further exploration of funds for green growth” could potentially be fulfilled through any movement away from the status quo. As a result, it is unsurprising that these commitments are deemed on-track despite the fact that the international community continues to warn that global efforts have greatly fallen short of what is required for ecological stability.

The most notable oddities in the DWG report, however, are its inherent internal contradictions and its incongruity to other movements in global development. One blatant inconsistency relates to the featured accountability claim that the G20 has established “credible outreach to non-member countries.” Although outreach efforts by the DWG are potentially commendable, the claim that the G20 agenda has a “credible” outreach strategy does not meet the standards of other global partnership initiatives. This includes the Millennium Development Goal to “develop a global partnership for development” and the Paris Declaration to coordinate better partnerships for development.

When the report is examined carefully, the DWG has only engaged with thirteen non-member counties and a handful of regional organizations since 2010, preferring to cooperate with multilateral development banks in order to meet G20 commitments. This number will certainly not satisfy critics who already believe that the G20 does too little in terms of creating accountable partnerships for development. Moreover, when categorizing G20 commitments that deal specifically with non-member inclusion or with the inclusion of targeted groups within non-member countries, a fair number of key commitments were deemed off-track by the report, which once again raises questions about the overall quality of G20 interventions. These details are important to be accountable for, since one associated commitment in particular – “promoting increased procurement from smallholder products and to strengthen their access to markets” – could produce multiplying economic benefits both to farmers as well as national tax bases in lower income countries.

Finally, how have the lessons learned from the DWG report been incorporated into the SPDO? On the final day of the G20 St. Petersburg Leaders Summit, the Declaration was released stating that “with most of the G20’s MYAP actions now complete, we see value in refining our approach and identifying new actions for the future development agenda.” In many ways, the SPDO represents nothing more than a reiteration of previous commitments, with only minor refinements, a somewhat skewed assessment of its accomplishments, and with a rather underwhelming sense of purpose.

As expected from the DWG report, the G20 supports a re-commitment to enhance outreach and consultation with non-member states, claiming that partnership with “all stakeholders” is crucial to advancing economic growth and development aims. In addition, the emphasis on food security, financial inclusion, infrastructure, human resource development, and domestic resource mobilization are singled out as key areas for increased future effort.

Nevertheless, like with MYAP and the DWG Accountability Report, the action plan and commitments associated with the SPDO lack exactness, clear criteria for measuring success (despite the claim that it will be result-based) and thorough integration with broader G20 objectives. This does help to support the criticism that the development agenda remains largely at the periphery of G20 initiatives and adds a level of credibility to the argument that the G20 is not the right forum for advancing development. Yet, a final conclusion of this sort might well be shortsighted.

After all the G20 St. Petersburg Summit did make a declaration to take development-related action to reduce tax base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS), which represents an area that could potentially deliver impressive results. This is because BEPS represents a loss of between $120-160 billion every year in developing countries. This amount equates to the total amount spent on health in sub-Sahara Africa and would be equivalent in relative terms to losing $1.2 trillion from G20 tax coffers a year.

Alternatively, the national income missing every year from tax avoidance alone represents a total loss of 2% in African countries. Therefore, although it may be fair to accuse the G20 of being “development-lite” and lacking credible accountability, it would also be unfair to suggest that G20 commitments have no bearing on development. If done uniformly and in a way that truly supports developing countries, efforts like the Action Plan on BEPS could provide needed assistance in meeting broader global development goals while at the same time giving the entire system a greater sense of institutionalized accountability.

 
 

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