Australian Outlook

G20: Crossing the Divide

24 Oct 2014
Catherine Grant Makokera and Christopher Wood
Official photo of BRICS leaders taken on September 5, 2013. Image credit: Flickr (Blog do Planalto)

If it can achieve sustained growth for emerging economies and avoids geopolitical pitfalls, then G20 will be a success for BRICS nations, writes South Africa’s Catherine Grant Makokera and Christopher Wood.

As the only African member of the G20, South Africa carries the weight not only of its own national interests but of being a voice for the concerns of African and low-income countries. While South Africa has no official mandate to represent anyone but itself, there is implicit pressure to ensure that those countries and institutions who participate in the G20 processes at least understand how some their decisions might impact upon African non-members. This has been reflected in the active role South Africa has played in the G20 concerning development, IMP reform and, more recently, taxation, to ensure that a balanced agenda and a range of different perspectives are put forward.

Diversity and development

From an African perspective, the best means for Australia’s presidency to assist in building a sustainable G20 is to develop an agenda that aims towards the universal goal of growth and development, and does so in a way that embraces the diversity of G20 member countries. The G20 has shown that it is well-suited to tackling global financial crises. These offer common objectives – a clear space where international cooperation is a necessity, and challenges that can be tackled regardless of differing approaches
to economic development. But for the G20 to succeed in the long run, it must build an agenda that unites diverse groups during good times – a time, ironically, when mutually beneficial, unanimously agreed courses of action will be much harder to find.

Addressing inequality and unemployment

Worth emphasising is the priority placed 
by South Africa on ensuring that the G20’s agenda addresses issues such as inequality and unemployment. These are priorities shared by South Africa with its neighbours and also, more broadly, by emerging economies. The G20 has the potential to provide a strong platform for the sharing of different development models and should not fall into the trap of being captured by any one economic paradigm.

Geopolitical pitfalls

In 2014, Australia’s G20 presidency risks becoming derailed by tensions between Russia and its G8 partners. This situation must be carefully managed. At the Foreign Ministers meeting in March 2014, South Africa tied its colours to its fellow BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China), arguing in favour of the continued inclusion of Russia in the G20. Without overstating the weight of the BRICS grouping, it would be challenging to craft a meaningful G20 work plan without their presence.

To make this delicate balancing act work, Australia’s presidency should continue to focus its efforts on economic issues. Any credible commitment to inclusive growth will ensure all countries remain invested in the G20 process and assist in assuring the long-term health of the group.


Catherine Grant Makokera is Head of Economic Diplomacy Programme, South African Institute of International Affairs.

Christopher Wood is a Researcher in South African Institute of International Affairs.

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.