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Seoul curry: Notes from the G20 summit

By the time my plane lands at the Incheon airport outside Seoul, the small TV screen in front of me shows, 'Outside temperature: 4 degrees Celsius'. My forebodings have turned into a living nightmare. Avinash Kumar writes.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2010 17:47 IST

By the time my plane lands at the Incheon airport outside Seoul, the small TV screen in front of me shows, 'Outside temperature: 4 degrees Celsius'. My forebodings have turned into a living nightmare. It is bitterly cold out here, especially for someone coming from the really pleasant weather of Delhi, though a Russian colleague is very happy to be escaping Moscow. That evening, going out for dinner with colleagues and newly made friends, my face is virtually ice sleet and my fingers frozen to the bone. However, what happens in the next few days is just the opposite- smiling faces of South Korean volunteers waiting for you at the subway stations eager to help you out in their broken English, some great and equally exotic multi-course local cuisine (sometimes spicier than Indian food!), intense, heated debates in a very easy atmosphere-and by the third day of the visit I feel that everything has become quite warm. Actually that's what you come away with-that it is the people who can turn your perception of a place just through their behaviour. South Korea certainly scores on this point in a very warm way.

South Korea is hosting the G20 countries summit in Seoul. I am with the Oxfam International team to be part of the ongoing civil society efforts to persuade G20 leaders to come up with a concrete development agenda. An agenda that is not just for the Low Income Countries, but for poor people across the world, most of whom, incidentally reside in the very emerging economies that are calling the shots now. Unfortunately, unlike some of my colleagues I haven't managed to get the right ID to be inside the 'happening' media centre where apparently all the action is, a real opportunity to intermingle with world media, Sherpas, delegations from different countries etc.

Some of us lesser citizens decide to turn this into an opportunity of a different kind. Hence within two days, we attend a People's Summit organized to deliberate upon the G20 at the local Sogang University, attend a dinner hosted by extremely hospitable local chapter of GCAP, a global network of civil society groups, attend a candle light vigil of about 5000-10000 people the same evening listening to some fantastic music and meeting some old friends in the process. Next day, we participate in a huge rally to protest against the governments' continued inaction on real issues of the poor and end up being in a march full of colourful flags and an age group ranging from 17-18 years (quite naturally!) to 65-70 (very surprisingly!). On both sides of the protestors are thousands of slickly dressed but very nervous looking policemen. According to press estimates, approximately 70,000 policemen have been deployed to secure the summit. In the middle of all this we have also found time to do the usual ceremonious media stunt organised by Oxfam for the benefit of international press. In short, our hands have been full!

But these very events have also witnessed some equally serious debates and questioning of current world socio-economic policies, organized in the form of paper presentations, informal one-to-one discussions and even ideas presented in simpler formulae through slogan shoutings.

On the second morning of the summit, as I am checking what's in the Indian media on the ongoing summit, I realize that just as the last week's scam on Adarsh Society is dying down, the old one is out of the bottle once again in the form of 'spectrum' Raja. While, there is nothing I can find on Times of India home page, I am automatically directed to Business Line when I click The Hindu, and to NDTV Profit when I click NDTV main page mainly containing notes from our PM's speech. While there's nothing much to be traced on Hindustan Times page, Indian Express once again has a detailed reporting on PM's speech. One of them also mentions that there's good news for biggies like Infosys and Vikram Pandit of Citi Bank in it. What the quick survey shows clearly is that even in media things like G20 are seen as the preserve of business correspondents and hence of not much interest to people at least in India.

The question inevitably arises, what has civil society got to do with a meeting which has largely been a preserve of government bureaucrats, economists and business media and also business tycoons so far. There's also a parallel B(usiness) 20 going on in Seoul. In fact, a colleague donning a 'business like' suit has infiltrated that summit and is constantly feeding us on the developments out there.

But to put things in perspective, together, the member countries of this group represent around 90 per cent of global gross national product, 80 per cent of world trade as well as two-thirds of the world's population. So even if it is primarily business they talk about, it cannot be left in the hands of this small coterie alone. G20 came into existence around 1999 when the earlier wave of economic crisis had hit nations and it was increasingly becoming clear that the hitherto dominant G8 countries would be unable to solve the problem. In that sense the coming together of these emerging economies was seen as an indicator of a changing world order and more importantly indicative of a democratization of a process which then would talk of all those countries whose aspirations have remained on the margins so far. Unfortunately, this process has not really seen these kind of results going by the hopes one put into this structure especially after the practical demise of UN led development processes.
Consider some of the facts given below. The World Bank estimates that 64 million more people will be pushed into extreme poverty by the economic crisis, struggling to survive on $1.25 per day. A recently conducted research for Oxfam found that 56 low-income countries face a $65bn fiscal hole in their budgets as a result of the current economic crisis. Countries which have seen rapid growth like India have also seen sharp, rising inequality. The very countries which are now Middle Income economies also house over a billion poor of the world as is also confirmed by the very latest Human Development Report (2010). These very facts prove that a much larger agenda needs to be developed by this small coterie of countries if we want the governments to work towards social development and not just business development often couched under 'national interests'.

Unfortunately, what has been under contest for long- 'growth first and development later'- still seems to be the ruling ideology with some tweaking here and there. On the other hand, South Korea, a non-G8 country hosting the event for the first time, itself is a great example of investing in development of human resources. South Korean effort in this sense to include a development agenda for the current summit while welcome still seems to be falling short of what people need.

It is unarguable that G20 does need to continue working on greater financial regulation, the lack of which incidentally has also led to huge jump in prices for basic food in recent months. The price of wheat has risen 60 percent since September. It also needs to continue to resolve the current stalemate between countries which need to export more and consume less like US and those which need to consume more and export less like China and other emerging markets towards some global balance of trade.
But these very countries also need to take a greater call on the broader issue of development itself. Sadly, what has just been released as 'Seoul Development Consensus' still prioritises primarily infrastructure (i.e. physical infrastructure) in the name of investment for poor countries. It very rightly emphasizes on broad ideals like human resource development, trade, financial inclusion, growth with resilience, food security, domestic resource mobilization and knowledge sharing. But the actions outlined for the same are not very clear. What it misses clearly is the clear commitment on social infrastructure through a clear action plan. Hence while growth is welcome, it is the inclusion of the poor in that growth story that would make societies and nations more sustainable. A clear commitment to investment in basic areas like health and education, finding sustainable livelihoods options, supporting countries to support their agricultural sector (still the largest employing sector world over, up to 65%) can also help generate the aggregate demand which has been the continuing headache world over. More importantly, it certainly needs to do more than offer just two seats to the Africans at the table as announced in the final declaration of the summit.

Governments always ask where the money is going to come from. Just to give perhaps one clue, as poor countries struggle, bank bonuses in the US alone are likely to approach $150bn this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. And these are the very banks which needed to be bailed out through huge financial packages by their respective governments.

Can we have some change in the way we prioritise our financing and subsidies? Even the IMF has recently argued that there's insufficient taxation of the financial sector. A small tax of 0.05% touching just the OECD countries alone can bring in 400 billion dollars. Countries like India need to enhance their own domestic resource mobilization through a progressive tax system. Currently the tax GDP ratio in India is fairly low. Above all, there needs to be a collective resolve that not only should poor countries not be left behind, but the poor in G20's own backyard need to be taken aboard the growth ride.

It is only through some of these concrete measures that G20 can justify its continued relevance and not by merely following the old trappings of sophisticated but empty sounding economic jargons. In the meanwhile as I prepare to say Gamsahapnida (Thank you in South Korean!) to our hosts, the focus is already shifting to France, the next host of the summit in 2011.

(Avinash Kumar is an Essential Services Lead Specialist, Oxfam India)

First Published: Nov 15, 2010 15:49 IST