20 things you didn’t know about the G-20

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20 things you didn’t know about the G-20


President Lee Myung-bak (seated in center) and government officials check the conference room at COEX on Saturday in southern Seoul, where the Group of 20 meeting will take place tomorrow. [Joint Press Corps]

1. “G” stands for group, but calling it “the Group of 20” rings a little flat and begs the obvious question, “Group of 20 what?” As you’ll see, the answer isn’t so simple.

2. The members are, in alphabetical order: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.

3. Technically, the G-20 meetings are regular get-togethers for finance ministers and central bank governors to discuss cosmic issues of economics. But in recent years, the countries’ leaders have also attended the summits, such as Seoul’s.

4. Since the formation of the G-20 in 1999, the technocrats have met 16 times. The leaders have met four times since 2008.

5. The G-20 is often mistakenly described as the “rich nations’ club,” but that description applies to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and some notably prosperous countries have been excluded from the group, such as Spain and the Netherlands. They’re kind of represented by the EU, but so are France, Germany and Italy, who also get their own seats at the table.

6. Nor does the G-20 bring together the largest economies of the world, or else Spain and the Netherlands (once again), Switzerland and Belgium would be in, and Saudi Arabia, Argentina and South Africa would be out.

7. Another group of people call the G-20 a group of the most powerful countries in the world. But if you define that as the ability to drop an atom bomb on your neighbor, the group would only be nine-strong. Kim Jong-il would be clinking champagne glasses at COEX with Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would probably have observer status.

8. So you can say the G-20 Summit is a meeting of entities so powerful they can choose which countries they want to discuss big issues with and which ones they want to exclude.

9. Other permanent participants at the summits include the bosses of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. To fend off charges of exclusivity, nonmember countries are usually invited to send observers, and the list keeps changing. Spain and the Netherlands were the first to be invited, as was their due, but over the years the list has included Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal, Malawi and regional groups like Asean. Observers to Seoul’s summit will be the leaders of the African Union (Malawi), Nepad (Ethiopia), Asean (Vietnam), the Global Governance Group (Singapore) and Spain.

10. G-20 leaders summits have been held semiannually since 2008, but from now on they will be a yearly affair.

11. The G-20 has no charter or staff. All the administrative duties are handed over to the next summit host, sort of like at Tupperware parties. But unlike Tupperware parties, the host of the G-20 Summit sets the agenda. It has to determine the most pressing issues, decide what can be accomplished and what can’t, and work hard to get all the members to agree to the various goals. That’s why Korea is taking the summit so seriously: the country is in a world leadership position for the very first time.

12. “Wait a minute,” we can hear some readers protest. “The G-20 isn’t the only ‘G’ phenomenon we read about on a regular basis. What about the G-3 and the G-7 and the G-8?”

13. The G-8 was born out of the oil shock of the early 1970s. Its precursors were the Library Group, an informal association of finance officials from the U.S., the U.K., West Germany, Japan and France. That became the G-6 in 1975, when the six countries’ leaders came together in Rambouillet, France. When Canada joined in 1976, it became the G-7. And when Russia finally came out of the cold in the 1990s, its officials started attending the yearly summits and the group was dubbed the G-7+1. In 1997, the wedlock was made legal, and the G-8 was finally constituted.

14. However, when the finance ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. get together, as they regularly do, the group is still known as the G-7. And the G-7 can still make front-page headlines. At a February 2009 meeting in Rome to discuss the global financial crisis, Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa held a press conference in an apparently intoxicated state. He resigned, and eight months later he was found dead in his bed.

15. In case you’re starting to think world leaders, finance ministers and central bankers have an insatiable appetite for meeting each other, even they have said enough is enough. Late last year, they announced that the G-20 would formally replace the G-8 for leaders summits.

16. And G-3 refers to the three largest countries in the EU: the U.K., France and Germany.

17. Antiglobalization groups, farmers and environmentalists descend on G-20 Summits to block streets and smash Starbucks locations, just as they do at WTO parleys and the annual convention of the IMF and World Bank. Because of those rowdy protestors, lots of international summits are now held in remote towns far from smashable storefronts, such as Kananaskis, Canada; Heiligendamm, Germany; Toyako, Japan; and Sea Island off the coast of Georgia in the U.S.

18. Korea chose against that safe route and is holding the G-20 in one of its capital city’s toniest districts, Gangnam, where a lot of well-heeled Seoulites could be in for major disruption in their lives. But there’s little anyone can teach Koreans about street protests or about protest control.

19. What do the G-20 Summits achieve? There are plenty of regional political gabfests - such as APEC and Asean - that are long on photo ops and short on practical accomplishments. Journalists covering the Asean summit in Cebu, the Philippines, in December 2006 said it was the only such meeting that ever produced a real news story - because it was canceled a few days before delegates arrived because of a typhoon and/or a terrorism threat. (The meeting was held a few weeks later.)

In contrast, the G-20 is the group that actually gets important work done. This is so because the leaders summits only got going in the hazardous “we gotta pull together” period after the global financial meltdown in 2008.

The leaders agreed on ways to protect banks from failing and increased funding for the IMF and World Bank. They also gave developing countries more power in the two institutions, put new regulations on financial institutions, cracked down on tax havens and bank secrecy and started supervising hedge funds and derivatives. Not bad work in a mere two years.

20. The 2011 G-20 Summit will be held in France, but the city hasn’t been disclosed yet.

By Anthony Spaeth

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