T20 – Cooperation to overcome the challenges to multilateralism?

Photo: Buenos Aires Skyline

The T20 summit assembled 1000 researchers from 68 countries during the past two days in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to present policy recommendations on issues such as future of work, climate action, trade and social inclusion. A joint communique was handed over to G20 Chair and Argentinean President Mauricio Macri that called for more engagement to overcome the challenges faced by multilateral cooperation in all these areas.

The discussions at the T20 Summit made very clear that achieving this goal will not be an easy task. In our view, think tanks need to step up their efforts to improve the effectiveness of the T20 as a responsible stakeholder of global governance and multilateral cooperation.

When the going gets rougher

We are in a rough international climate where the usefulness of multilateral cooperation and research-based policy proposals are increasingly doubted. Political settings in a number of countries have turned more inward-looking in the past years and “my country first” approaches are poisoning attempts to solve global challenges cooperatively. Furthermore, research-based evidence as a basis for policy decisions faces headwind in times of politics based on gut feelings and moods of the day. This is a current reality in a number of countries, including major players in the G20. The G20 currently rather assemble a variety of national interests and egos around the table. The G20 summit in Buenos Aires in 2018 is probably under an even more difficult star than the previous one in Hamburg Hamburg in 2017.

The recent discussions of trade ministers in Mar del Plata were an illustration of the difficulties lying ahead. The purpose of these technical meetings is to provide input for the leaders’ summit taking place at the end of November in Buenos Aires. The trade ministers’ communique, however, shows a low level of ambition and it seems to reflect the lowest common denominator, rather than a productive meeting. We can observe similar results so far on sustainable development or climate action. This does not augur well for the upcoming G20 summit.

The role of think tanks

In view of international negotiations increasingly deadlocked, think tanks based in the G20 and non-G20 countries must rise to the challenges of populism and more nationalist thinking. It is not sufficient in these days to draft technical policy proposals concerning the solution of global problems. Crucially, think tanks have to shoulder more and different responsibilities in a contested global governance system.

For this purpose, think tanks are increasingly networking, cooperating and sharing insights from various countries and scientific disciplines. The T20, a network of think tanks and research institutes from a broad range of G20 and non-G20 countries, was geared to creating topical task forces in order to draft evidence-based policy proposals. The relevance of these task forces increases the more they reflect the diversity of contexts, and the plurality of problem definitions and solutions that characterizes our world. Cooperation on the basis of plurality and diversity is an asset in the current situation and not a burden. The task forces not only tackle conventional questions of economics and fiscal policy, but also consider achieving the 2030 Agenda, global equality, sustainable development in Africa and climate action. As this increasingly transnational think tank network is meant to be beyond politics and does not represent special interests, it is free to deal with policy issues of great future relevance even though consensus on them may not yet seem feasible in the G20 context. The communique of the T20 and its recommendations to the Argentinean G20 Presidency show that this task continues to be important.

Think tanks, of course, cannot fully compensate for political shortcomings. They can provide recommendations, but they are not decision-makers. Furthermore, academics in think tanks are part of the elites, and as such are currently under fire. In this rather hostile climate, the T20 and other outreach groups such as the B20, C20 and W20 are important to maintain or probably rather rebuild the basis of cooperation below the level of international diplomacy. This process “under the surface” remains relevant – or even gains relevance – when agreement cannot be reached between governments. In other words: transnational action can help to keep issues on the plate when there exists a tendency to push them off the negotiation table.

Way forward for the T20

In recent years, the T20 has strengthened its focus on providing research-based policy advise, interacted more intensively with the G20 and its work streams and improved its internal working structures. While these improvements are surely necessary, they are certainly not sufficient for the T20 to fully exploit its potential as a facilitator of multilateral cooperation. In this respect, we suggest the T20 should take the following three steps:

First, the T20 should strive to further increase its impact on G20 policy-making processes. Necessary is an even stronger focus on effective dissemination strategies of the policy proposals produced by the task forces of the T20. So far, this dissemination is mainly taking place through the channels established between the chairs of the T20 and the G20 presidency. In addition, the T20 task forces should make use of its unique setup including think tank experts from various G20 and non-G20 countries and disseminate the policy advise in their national policy environments too.

Second, there is much potential for the various engagement groups to strengthen the exchange with each other in order to influence the G20 process. In the past two years, engagement groups such as the B20, C20 and T20 have issued joint statements on climate change that were received positively by a number of G20 governments. There is further potential of the working groups of the engagement groups to come together and develop joint policy proposals. The joint work of the T20 and the W20 on gender equity serves as an example. This cooperation, of course, is not easy as engagement groups represent different societal stakeholders and often compete with each other for influence. The T20, which does not see itself as an advocacy or interest group, can help to bridge these differences and enable cooperation between different engagement groups.

Third, the T20 needs to step up its efforts to better engage with society. Sharp thoughts and public engagement is needed and not only technical advice. Academics clearly have a public role to play to discuss and explain the benefits as well as the challenges of multilateral cooperation.

Axel Berger is Senior Researcher and Head of the G20 Policy Research Group at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

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