Without adequate representation from Africa, the G20 falls short of being truly inclusive of the world’s economic realities; therefore, a stronger membership of Africa in the group would promote a more equitable and balanced global governance structure.
I first advocated for the African Union membership of the G7 and G20 in 2010. It was clear given the economic and trade patterns noticeable then that it was difficult to exclude a sizeable continent such as Africa from a meaningful role in global governance. Those arguments still hold true and have since become more obvious.
Africa is home to a significant portion of the world’s population and possesses abundant natural resources, its economy has been growing steadily, and has the potential to become a major economic powerhouse. Its G20 membership seems necessary, as it would enable the G20 to benefit from a more comprehensive representation of global economic dynamics, allowing for a more accurate assessment of the global economic landscape.
Likewise, if the members of the G7 wanted to evolve from inviting Africa for the breakfast of each of their Summit gatherings into seducing the continent to be closer to their positions, all they needed was to argue that a block of $1. 3-trillion combined GDP (in 2010) should become a full member.
Africa plays a crucial role in regional stability and development. A role that can be positive or negative. Many of the challenges faced by the continent, such as conflicts, poverty, or lack of structural economic transformation, have ripple effects beyond its borders. By giving Africa a seat at the G20, the group can gain valuable insights into addressing these challenges and develop more effective mechanisms to deal with the urgent climate action requirements the planet needs.
African countries face specific challenges, but also present immense opportunities to help the world move faster on energy transition and access to the essential strategic minerals required by the new technological developments. With its growing consumer market, emerging industries, and untapped resources, Africa offers long-term prospects for economic growth, trade expansion and investment returns.
The G20 gained particular importance as a mechanism to respond to the 2008-09 sub-prime-induced shock waves in the international financial system. In the name of stability and predictability, it quickly expanded its portfolio and self-mandated reach. Today, the G20 process includes no less than 200 meetings of ministers, government officials and civil society members across 32 different workstreams.
While the G20 currently includes 19 countries and one regional representative, the European Union, representing 80% of global GDP and trade, it is essential to acknowledge the African Union (AU) and its potential contribution.
The AU consists of 55 member states, which, when combined, form today’s eighth-largest economy globally, a fact particularly relevant at the dawn of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The African region remains one of the most exposed to international financial and economic rules and norms, including those related to sovereign debt management, without having adequate representation or influence in shaping these policies.
South Africa currently stands as the only permanent member of the G20 from the African continent. If the major criteria of membership were considered at least Nigeria should have been invited for membership some time back, given that its economy is significantly larger than South Africa’s economy.
The paradox remains that in any of the areas of critical focus, the continent that suffers the most from exogenous shocks – such as climate change, access to liquidity, illicit financial flows, access to protective equipment and vaccines during the pandemic or food supplies and higher prices – is the one mostly absent from the table.
During his rotating Presidency of the AU in 2022, Senegalese President Macky Sall emphasised the importance of rectifying the “injustice” by admitting the AU as a member of the G20. Furthermore, Sall advocated for a further redistribution of Special Drawing Rights, international reserve assets, from wealthier nations to support the development and resilience of poorer states in the face of climate change.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his capacity as current Chair of the G20, has responded favourably. He has sent a letter to all G20 members, dated 17 June 2023, asking them to endorse the AU full membership in the forthcoming Summit of the group, scheduled to take place in September 2023. He said it will be a “right step towards a just, fair, more inclusive and representative global architecture and governance”.
I can only rejoice that a claim I first made 13 years ago seems to be approaching a decision point.
Arguments of Africa’s detractors
Detractors of the AU’s membership in the G20 often raise concerns about the credibility of the AU as an organisation, citing funding shortfalls and bureaucratic inefficiencies. However, an increasing portion of the AU’s budget is self-funded by member states, with operational expenses fully covered by such contributions. While international partners continue to be the largest contributors to the peace support budget and major projects, this does not necessarily undermine the effectiveness of a new member.
Moreover, the AU’s inclusion could incentivise member states to invest more in the organisation, recognising the growing international standing and potential positive economic returns.
Another concern expressed by detractors is that admitting the AU could lead to further expansions and dilute the coherence of the G20. The AU membership process has, so far, rather set a higher bar for new entrants, requiring individual persuasion of most of the members. If anything, the long walk is proof of difficulties and exclusivity rather than dilution.
We must admit though, that since the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia/Ukraine war the incoherence of the G20 has become palpable. It is a major indication that the group is facing inner struggles. Members currently cannot agree on a communique – Chairs summaries have had to be issued instead.
It is against this background that the AU will likely offer useful perspectives to support consensus building.
We need only to look at the previous trip made by the AU Chair and AU Commission to Russia – which paved the way for the unlocking of trade routes from which Europe and other regions then primarily benefited – to understand the potential benefits of African perspectives on global stability, financial or otherwise.
Geopolitical tensions often stem from global challenges that require collective action. Climate change, migration, terrorism and pandemics are just a few examples. Recognising the African Union as a full member of the G20 would be a significant step towards addressing geopolitical tensions. It would acknowledge Africa’s importance, provide a platform for African interests, promote economic development, strengthen conflict resolution efforts and address global challenges through a more inclusive and representative global governance structure.
By doing so, the G20 can contribute to a more stable and prosperous world for all.
Carlos Lopes is a Professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town (UCT), and a member of the African Union Reform Team. This op-ed was originally published in Daily Maverick as part of a series of opinion pieces by UCT’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance team.
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