The G20 as an engine of quiet change: Reaching a summit is crucial to success, but coming back down is even more so

In reflecting on the work of the G20’s Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG), Phil Mason explains that while grand international summits often consist in more ‘theatre’ than substance, they can nevertheless provide important avenues for reform. As he writes, “these processes can be powerful, if virtually invisible, engines of quiet change”. But, as the balance between words and action remains vastly out of kilter, a much stronger focus on implementation is essential to make the exercise worthwhile. This is the first blog post in the CSC’s series ‘The role of the G20 Anti-Corruption Working group in influencing the global agenda’.

Space Engine
“The summit is just a halfway point: completing journey seems the unfinished business now to attend to”, writes Phil Mason. Image credits: K-putt, shared under a CC BY-NC 2.0 licence.

The scene has become familiar. It is the start of one of the ‘summits’ of world leaders. We see the heads settling around their conference table, we are shown them posing for the group photo. And after a day or two of deliberation, they produce a weighty ‘communiqué’, often running to 20 or 30 pages, detailing their discussions, full of grand analysis and commitments.

One can be forgiven for musing – did they really all sit there and discuss these complex matters and, moreover, compress their differences into those neatly drafted lines in just those few hours?

Of course not. Summitry is largely theatre. That’s not to say it is unimportant, but to understand where the real importance lies, you need to peer behind the stage curtain. Paradoxically, the most likely beneficiaries are not the ones we get to see.

It is not for nothing that the whole panoply of this kind of large-scale diplomatic engagement has taken on the language and metaphors of mountaineering.  The objectives being aimed for are truly of the loftiest ambition, and the ‘summit’ is, indeed, the peak of the endeavour. That achievement, as in any successful climb, represents the culmination of an arduous set of careful preparations. In our world, these are carried out by lower level officials, who are, to continue the analogy, given the title of ‘sherpa’. These are the folks that guide the whole process, prepare the trail, light the way. They will have been working together tirelessly, often for a whole year in advance of the summit, devilling away to negotiate agreed positions and craft those communiqué pages, the declarations, the action plans.

The G20 is like this in its way of working. Its offshoot, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG), although being an officials-only process, nevertheless has similar characteristics. It has, though, a distinctive self-declared purpose that stands it apart from other conventional international processes. It set itself the objective of ‘leading by example’ – not to explicitly set rules as global standards for others to follow, but to agree actions that by their operation would illustrate their benefits and draw others alongside.

Therein, perhaps, lies the biggest challenge to its progress on anti-corruption. For looked at in the traditional way, the history so far of the G20 leadership on anti-corruption, via its Working Group, has been to produce a mountain of commitments with few compensatory signs that these are shifting collective practice.

And the formal products are copious indeed. A good service has recently been performed by UNODC in establishing a site that compiles all the G20 anti-corruption commitments in one place. It is staggering in its volume of pledges of better behaviour. The list runs to 99 documents. The number of individual commitments within them must be reaching into the many hundreds, likely thousands.

It is tempting to question the value of all this wordsmithing. But these formal products of the ACWG are only one aspect of the story.

Having myself been a frequent small cog in exercises like this, I see a benefit that rarely gets noticed. Where these occasions give opportunities for reform-minded officials to advance an issue within their bureaucracy, these processes can be powerful, if virtually invisible, engines of quiet change.

It can work in three ways. Firstly, where the policy environment in the organisation is relatively benign, bureaucrats pressing for change can get their topics advanced more rapidly elevated up the policy food chain. Secondly, where resistance has been encountered before, adept officials, responding to their ministers’ urgent demands for ‘deliverables’, can often outmanoeuvre these barriers. (I saw these two forms work extensively in our own agenda-setting for the London Anti-Corruption Summit in 2016. Multiple concepts, previously considered ‘difficult’, found sudden favour in the imperative to build a respectable basket of summit outcomes.) Finally, it has often proved tactically advantageous to present desired actions, not as ‘adventurous’ ideas from within, but as sensible ‘responses’ to pressures from others in the negotiations.

So it may be that things are quietly shifting in many bureaucracies. We cannot tell for sure that this is happening in the G20 anti-corruption space. We need to do better at finding out.

Looking to the future, there needs to be far more emphasis on tracking implementation than has been shown up to now. The balance between words and action remains vastly out of kilter with the continual piling up of commitments and the demonstration of practical achievement.

One of the foremost problems of the ACWG has been the propensity for each incoming chair to introduce a fresh raft of plans and priorities. Perhaps one reform the ACWG could make is to pause on new commitments for a while and reflect more deeply on showing that implementation, the other side of the commitment coin, is actually happening. This would restore some sense of balance to all these efforts. As a seasoned mountaineer once said, ‘The summit is just a halfway point’. Coming back down, completing the journey, seems the unfinished business now to attend to.

Phil Mason was a UK civil servant for 35 years. He started DFID’s anti-corruption work in 2000. Under his guidance, DFID established aid-funded UK law enforcement units to investigate and recover stolen assets in the UK originating from developing countries and to pursue bribery by British companies in developing countries. He helped negotiate the UN Convention against Corruption, which was agreed in 2003. He was awarded an OBE for services to the UK’s international anti-corruption policy.

Posted in G20 Anti-Corruption Agenda, International Development
One comment on “The G20 as an engine of quiet change: Reaching a summit is crucial to success, but coming back down is even more so
  1. Some useful experience here for those starting out on the influencing trail. I particularly like “it has often proved tactically advantageous to present desired actions, not as ‘adventurous’ ideas from within, but as sensible ‘responses’ to pressures from others”. It is even possible, I suggest, to exagerrate the ‘pressures’ to strengthen the response you desire.

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