Posted by: davidjolson | 11/03/2010

Where is global health at the Seoul G20 Summit?

Next week, the very first G20 Summit in a non-G8 country takes place in Seoul, South Korea. Up until now, the G20 has not been a champion of international development or of global health. So will these two issues come out any better at the Seoul Summit when it is held Nov. 11-12?

On development, things are looking somewhat encouraging: Korea got off to a good start at the end of the last G20 in Toronto in June, when it created two working groups — one on development, which Korea co-chairs with South Africa, and one on corruption, co-chaired by France and Indonesia, which some say does more to retard development than anything else.

The Koreans took that effort seriously and long-time Korea watcher Lawrence MacDonald of the Center for Global Development said in a blog and at an event hosted by the Embassy of Korea yesterday that “we are witnessing the emergence of a new conventional wisdom about development that more fully takes into account the East Asian experience.”

The Korean approach to development “clearly involves much more than just providing a level playing field and open markets,” writes MacDonald in the blog. “Taken together with a strong push for exports and heavy investment in infrastructure that has also characterized the Korean and other East Asian success stories, the framework was seen by some [pre-summit] conference participants as the articulation of a new ‘Seoul Consensus’ to supplant the much criticized (and oft misunderstood) Washington Consensus, which places greater faith in open markets and less emphasis on the need for a capable and active state.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the Koreans have their own view of development, I would like to see them show more appreciation for the established international development agenda (á la the Millennium Development Goals). But so far, they have shown little, and the G20 focuses not at all on global health (including water and sanitation) or other issues of critical importance to international civil society like climate change, food and education that have always dominated the civil society agendas at recent G8 and G20 summits.

Why, I asked MacDonald at the Korean Embassy briefing, does the Seoul Summit fail to focus on international development issues such as global health the way the G8 did in Canada with the Muskoka Intiative on maternal and child health, which the Global Health Council strongly supported?  MacDonald believes there are at least three reasons:

  • Korea looked for ways it can add value to the G20, he said. The G20 is mostly made up of developing countries. Asking them to allocate aid to other developing countries “is not a good fit.”
  • The G20 has an uneasy relationship with the United Nations system and the UN sees the G20 as potentially trying to do what it was set up to do. Just six weeks ago, the UN held a special summit on the Millennium Development Goals, which reflect many of civil society’s issues at the G20, and the G20 was loathe to follow the G8 tendency of making commitments they later ignore.
  • Korea’s own development experience is critical to its thinking on development in the rest of the world. And that experience is all about sustainable growth, not foreign assistance. “Some people feel that the G20 neglects traditional development issues,” said MacDonald. “I don’t agree. I don’t think you can’t make serious progress on these things without sustainable growth.”

MacDonald gives the Koreans a lot of credit for being the first G20 host to hold a pre-summit meeting for civil society which also brought it together with the G20 sherpas. “The G20, seeking to assert its legitimacy, has established a precedent for pre-summit dialogue with representatives of civil society who are prepared to ask difficult questions,” he said. “The meeting set a precedent that seems likely to become a regular feature of future G20 meetings and is one of the few ways the G20 can be at least questioned, if not held accountable, for its decisions.”

I agree that the Koreans deserve credit for establishing a pre-summit engagement between G20 sherpas and civil society. But they should be challenged for making the Seoul Summit the least open in terms of access for civil society at the summit itself.

In the G8 in L’Aquila, Italy last year, civil society had full access to the international media center. This allowed NGOs to have their voices heard and also ensure a degree of transparency and accountability. In the Pittsburgh G20 last September, NGOs again had full access to the media center. During the twin G8/G20 summits in Canada in June, the Canadian government departed from recent tradition and created two media centers — one for the “legitimate” media and another one across the street for civil society. One NGO representative termed this “media apartheid.” But at least it provided some access.

Civil society was upset with the Canadians about that, but what the Koreans are doing limits civil society access even more. Why? MacDonald suspects that the Koreans are keeping the NGOs out of the Summit for fear of radical elements in their own domestic civil society.

Whatever the reason, it is a bad precedent and something we ardently hope will be changed when France hosts the next G20 in 2011.

To answer my original question, “Where is global health at the Seoul Summit?” At the moment, nowhere.


  1. […] week, South Korea will host the G20 meeting. So far not a word has been uttered about global health, maybe because emerging countries don’t perceive global health and the UN the same way donor […]

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