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C20: A Focus on Inequality

31 Jul 2014
Tim Costello
Source: G20 Words Into Action Brisbane 2014

As the gulf between the world’s privileged and poor widens, Tim Costello, Chair of the C20 Steering Committee, calls for not only greater input by civil society into the G20 process but a novel new means to measure true prosperity.

We have seenaround the world in recent years, whether they are from developing or wealthy nations, a deep sense of discontent among citizens. Their expression takes many forms – from cynicism and disengagement in the political process, to mass street protests, and impassioned calls for both local and global action. Governments are struggling to contend with the ever-deepening divide between society’s “haves” and “have-nots”. It comes at a time when average citizens are becoming more dissatisfied with traditional policy approaches, and are voicing a growing impatience with what they see as elite excess and influence, often at their expense. Persistent and growing inequality, both within and between nations, lies at its heart. Ordinary citizens are seeking alternative ways to express themselves and seek responses to their demands. This strikes at the heart of our democratic traditions and forces us to question the accountability of our politicians.

The Role of Civil Society

There is a growing realisation around the limits of power. Political power wielded by national governments appears unable to bring about policy outcomes which meet the legitimate expectations and aspirations of ordinary people. There is a growing realisation among global policy agenda- setters that inequality and exclusion stifles economic growth. It also destabilises political leadership.

This is in many ways a healthy realisation. Governments don’t have all the answers, and nor should they believe they have. The ability of civil society to galvanise around a challenge means we now have a very real opportunity to realise significant change.

Australia’s Presidency of the G20 — the world’s preeminent gathering devoted to fostering global economic growth — has cemented civil society’s place in its architecture. Just as the G20 has evolved in recent years from a gathering of Finance Ministers to include national leaders, so the closer involvement of non-government organisations is a reflection of the realities of contemporary governing and policy-making.

This is the result of a direct challenge put by civil society to the world’s leaders and decision-makers that new ways of doing business require as many people as possible to benefit from economic progress. It is becoming harder to challenge our view that inclusive growth, together with a more equitable distribution of wealth, is a prerequisite for sustainable growth.

The G20 is increasingly aware that inequality can be a serious obstacle to promoting economic and social development and wellbeing. Poverty alleviation is not a niche issue to be debated outside of the G20 summit, but rather, it is its core business.

The Issues

The yawning gaps between rich and poor, and the inequitable application of tax rules and regulation, breeds civil displeasure and cynicism. Economic growth could be boosted if governments did the following:

  1. Invested in education and job creation.
  2. Committed to community and capacity-building infrastructure in order to provide the essential services needed by our most vulnerable.
  3. Encouraged investment to mitigate climate change.
  4. Enshrined multilateral legislation that ensured transparency and accountability in corporate behaviour and global markets.

These issues should all be on the table during G20 deliberations – and with civil society in the room, they are.

Shifting the Consciousness

Saint Petersburg’s G20 in 2013 afforded civil society an unprecedented voice in the global economic policy-making process. G20 Leaders are becoming more acutely aware of the necessity for deep, cross- sectoral thinking and problem-solving when it comes to complex, global-scale challenges – such as how to improve wellbeing through inclusive growth, and not merely the pursuit of growth as an end in itself. To this end, we also propose to challenge the idea that economic activity should be the sole indicator of prosperity. As useful as it is, GDP only tells us about the economy. We also need a measure that is about people, environment, democracy and other aspects of life that matter to overall well-being. With that in mind, it’s high time to promote a national wellbeing index developed with the involvement of all our citizens.

Civil society, operating in tandem with governments and business, possesses a wealth of expertise directly relevant to addressing such difficult challenges. In an era characterised by a 24/7 news cycle and immediate global interconnectedness, G20’s ongoing legitimacy depends increasingly on being open to ideas from a broad coalition of collaborators.

The Australian Example

In Australia, we are privileged that a diverse range of voices can speak up and be heard as we debate the challenges facing our society and the world. When Brisbane hosts the G20 Summit in November, and civil society convenes its own Summit in June, we will have shown the world a very great deal about inclusivity and active participation. Australia’s C20 Steering Committee has been working consistently and collaboratively to map out how civil society’s voice can directly influence G20 policy. As a sector which does much of society’s heavy lifting, a permanent, ongoing civil society seat at the global economic policy-making table is both a legitimate expectation and a necessity.


Tim Costello is Chair of the C20 Steering Committee and Chief Executive of World Vision Australia.

This is an extract from G20: Words into Action Brisbane 2014, to be published by Faircount Media in association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs in October 2014.