Civil Society G20 Engagement: Reflections on Mexico’s Experience

27 April 2012

By Rocio Stevens

Stevens is the Oxfam Mexico Campaigns Coordinator.  This article and a companion piece on the Argentinian experience appeared in the monthly newsletter on the G20 by the Heinrich Boell Foundation.

 The 2012 Mexican G20 Summit comes at a time of deep global imbalances, instability and increasing inequality. Donor countries have reduced their aid allocations to developing countries and millions of people in developing as well as industrialized countries have been pushed into poverty due to increasing food prices and unemployment. In 2010, the G20 made a commitment to achieving inclusive and sustainable growth and, although some progress has been made, this is a distant goal. Acting alone, governments cannot reduce inequality, end poverty and increase opportunities. Resolving these urgent development issues will require a new alliance between active, organized citizens and effective, transparent and open governments. As President of the 2012 G20, Mexico has the opportunity to establish a precedent in working together with civil society.

History of Civil society and G8/G20 engagement

In addressing the G8 and G20 processes and summits, civil society has a long history of dialogue, advocacy, criticism and confrontation that includes success stories showing that organized citizens with clear aims can contribute to real change. For example, at the 2005 G8 Summit held in Gleneagles, Scotland, public pressure generated by civil society organizations (CSOs) working together globally –some through direct dialogue with governments and some through activism– significantly boosted commitments and allocations of aid. This CSO success story was due to a series of factors, including the interest of the U.K., as host government, of exercising power and leadership. Nevertheless, the Gleneagles agreements changed some antiquated practices of the rich world in regards to aid.

Today the G8 has lost importance as the preeminent group for international political and economic discussion. As the 2008 international financial crisis was unleashed in the heart of the developed world, the G20 Summits became the main forum for addressing and guaranteeing global macroeconomic stability. After a decade of low-profile finance ministers’ meetings with undisclosed agreements, the G20 became the star of global forums as it began meeting at the level of Heads of State. In turn, civil society has increasingly called upon G20 leaders to establish space for dialogue. CSOs have also questioned the G20’s legitimacy for making decisions that affect millions of people, excluding the other 173 members of the United Nations system from their deliberations. From a civil society perspective, the debate regarding the relevance or convenience of G20 engagement is very much alive and valid.

One argument in favor of civil society engagement is that the G20 is an innovation in global governance. While it is not representative, the G20 has strategic importance due to the size of the economies and populations it represents. In this sense, it is more representative than the G8 and also perhaps more important in terms of the current balance of power worldwide. On the other hand, critics of G20 engagement emphasize the lack of legitimacy, openness and transparency with which the Group makes its decisions. The question seems to be: why should the world trust a club of rich countries to resolve the problems of the world’s poor? Moreover, critics warn, this group is destined to fail since its member countries are unable to transcend their own national interests.

A broad range of nuanced positions exists among CSOs in countries inside and outside of the G20. In Mexico, the majority of civil society finds itself learning what the G20 means for emerging and developing countries and for advocacy, campaigning and/or activism on key issues. Mexico is a country with deep inequities rooted in its social and political structures. At both the national and regional levels, organizations, networks and social movements exist with a great deal of experience in pressuring local and national governments to improve laws and policies. For instance, Mexican CSOs have made significant efforts to influence bilateral, regional or global trade and investment agreements (e.g., with the European Union as well as with the U.S. and Canada through NAFTA). However, despite their varied experience, very few of these CSOs have engaged with an agenda, such as the G20’s.

The challenges

One of civil society’s main challenges is the lack of ties between grassroots, national, and international CSOs and networks. For many CSOs, tackling poverty entails work on universal, quality public services, including education and healthcare; greater investment in rural areas; and the protection of human rights. Nevertheless, CSOs increasingly understand that, by influencing global political processes, it is also possible to create change. The G20 has accelerated bridge-building processes, yet civil society actors are still geographically dispersed with a variety of interests, ways of organizing, and strategic approaches.

Even experienced advocacy organizations continue to face new challenges in the face of the G20 Summit to be held in Mexico in June. In the climate arena, Mexico hosted the 16th Conference of Parties (COP16) in 2010 – an experience which “sharpened the teeth” of CSOs and improved their capacity to see national problems from a global perspective and galvanize joint (national and international) agendas. However, the nature of the G20 poses limitations for civil society participation that oblige us to think of new tactics. In this sense, we need to learn from veteran organizations in the United States and Europe, as well as other similar processes in developing countries like Korea. However, Mexico has a lot to contribute given previous advocacy with the government on issues of climate change, human rights, gun control, and national budgeting, among other issues. In other words, Mexican CSOs have a solid foundation of knowledge regarding the style of Mexican negotiators in domestic and foreign arenas and how to influence government actors with an “inside-outside” agenda – that is, through negotiation and protest.

Asymmetric outreach to non-State actors

Governments have different ways of reacting to the critical presence and action of organized citizens – from authoritarian stances in which civil society is neither seen nor heard, on one hand, to efforts to engage in dialogue, on the other. Some governments are ignorant –and perhaps fearful– of the need to open debate to formal participation by civil society. Even when the need for debate is acknowledged, discussion is required on the type and format of the debate that is allowed. For some time now, the G20 has carried out dialogue with non-State actors in different ways at different Summits. The Business-20 (B20) has become a tradition, the Labor-20 (L20) was inaugurated in France, and this year the “doors of dialogue” were opened to think tanks through the “Think 20” and youth groups through the Y20 with Girls20 in particular. However, a formal space for dialogue with civil society –a C20– is still lacking. For the G20, the usefulness or added value of such a venue does not appear to be clear; perhaps because the value of civil society contributions must be clarified.

In the documentDialogue with civil society in the framework of the G20 Leaders Summit”, the Mexican Presidency expressed how it observes civil society’s role. To date, its approach offers at least three positive elements. First, civil society includes not only NGOs, networks and social movements, but also unions, academia, independent experts and international organizations, among others. Second, the document establishes “principles for dialogue”, which include openness, transparency, access to information, respect and equilibrium. Finally, the Mexican government proposes the creation of a multi-actor “liaison group” with national and international representatives, “to facilitate accompaniment, attention and dialogue between civil society and the G20 Mexican Presidency”.

True dialogue is more than just information sharing

But there is bad news as well. It appears that the Mexican Presidency’s aim of engaging with civil society is merely to exchange information. The meaning of “dialogue” is undefined, together with the mechanisms “to take into consideration civil society’s constructive proposals to transmit them to the G20 members.” Perhaps the worst piece of news is the apparent lack of political will to create change in this arena. When the Mexican government speaks of “taking advantage of civil society’s experience to jointly achieve the Mexican Presidency’s objectives for the G20”, no room is provided for formulating or accepting joint objectives or new paradigms or for criticism, negotiation or innovation.

In practice, the Mexican Presidency has opened up spaces with civil society since the beginning of 2012, which have had the character of “meetings for dialogue and consult with civil society.” To date, the Presidency has convened four meetings with Mexican CSOs in Mexico City, as follows:

Topic Date Main government negotiators present
Progress on the Financial Track and by Sherpas February 10, 2012 Hugo Garduño (Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit-SHCP) and Lourdes Aranda (Secretariat of Foreign Affairs-SRE)
Progress on the G20 Agenda March 7, 2012 Patricia Espinoza-Secretary of Foreign Affairs (SRE)
Progress by the G20 Development Working Group March 30, 2012 Rogelio Granguillhome and Kenneth Smith Ramos (SRE)
Green Growth on the G20 Agenda April 3, 2012 Enrique Lendo (Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources-SEMARNAT)


The first two meetings covered generalities regarding the Summit agenda, in terms of the Financial Track and the Sherpas. The last two sought to address the permanent demand of Mexican civil society organizations to have issue-specific meetings, in order to discuss detailed policy concerns. Undoubtedly, these meetings have been useful for opening channels of communication, resolving doubts and building trust. In addition, the G20 Presidency, Mexico has employed the website as a tool to give visibility to proposals presented by civil society actors. While this is appreciated as an essential step towards transparency, the website is only an informational channel. The question is how to achieve real engagement and collaboration.

Nationally and globally, civil society is debating the utility of formalizing a space, such as the C20. Financier George Soros is also promoting a C20 in his discussions with world leaders. Creation of a C20 could lead to collaboration; however, it could also lead to more declarations without follow-up actions. It is important to determine whether the B20, L20 and the more recent Think 20 have forced policy actions through their working documents, communiqués and declarations. For those of us who are not directly involved, it may not be clear how these spaces have made a difference. Nonetheless, the political message is clear: governments consider these actors to be strategic players with something valuable to say. Given its wealth of experience and knowledge, global civil society also has valuable input about the crises faced by humanity.

In response to a petition by global networks, the Mexican Presidency invited three civil society representatives –one from each of the countries that comprise the current G20 troika: France, Mexico and Russia– to the recent Sherpas meeting. This encounter allowed each of the three representatives to share a message with almost all of the G20 Sherpas. Once again, while this did not provide a space for exchanging opinions or beginning discussions, it was another step forward. It is said that repetition leads to familiarity and to habit. We hope that future, broader encounters can take place and will continue to call for them. Initial analysis of this encounter indicates that interest exists, but greater trust is needed to move from listening to collaboration.

The Liaison Group proposal

The Mexican Presidency’s proposal of a “liaison group” may be a step towards joint work. A Sherpas’ liaison group should also be created comprised of astute pioneers who consider civil society engagement not as a formality but as an opportunity to build new knowledge and alliances towards common goals. Above all, the ingredient that is missing for truly effective civil society engagement is transparency. While the Group of Twenty continues to safeguard its discussion papers, policy options and strategies in secrecy, any possibilities for exchange will continue to be asymmetrical and, hence, the Group’s results will continue to be, at best, incomplete.

Civil society wants the G20 to be characterized by accountability and the fulfillment of its commitments, particularly those which address the problems of the poorest and most disadvantaged populations. The challenges that the G20 has assumed demand the involvement of all sectors of society. A formal space for civil society engagement will not eliminate protests in the streets, mass demonstrations, campaigns and calls to action. A single meeting room cannot embrace and contain the myriad of civil society voices but it can pave the way to effective multi-stakeholder alliances in favor of rights-based development.

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Filed under: IFTI Watch


In this column, Washington, D.C.-based journalist Toby J. McIntosh reports on the latest developments in information disclosure in International Financial and Trade Institutions (IFTI).
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