G20 should become more accountable – here’s how

Photo: "Traffic in China"

The future of globalization will decisively depend on the future of international political cooperation. The G20 is one of the most important, but also one of the most criticized fora for the cooperation between the economically most powerful states. It is thus of upmost importance that it becomes more accountable to the public. We argue here that the most feasible and least intrusive step forward with regard to the G20’s accountability would be to take measures to increase its transparency.

According to a survey among German citizens before the Hamburg Summit of the G20 in 2017 a significantly higher share of respondents reported a negative than a positive perception of the group. The ability of the G20 to contribute to the solution of global problems was assessed even worse (see figure below). Three elements are likely to contribute to a negative perception in Germany and in other places. First, the G20 is often viewed as a club of rich and powerful countries in which heads of some states agree on initiatives that have implications also for others. Secondly, G20 discussions take place behind closed doors, so there’s some mystery about their deliberations. And thirdly, the G20 also includes autocratic governments who firmly repress free press and opposition at home. In the perception of many, the G20 is ultimately a mechanism for elites from rich countries to further their own interests – far remote from the people and not accountable to anyone.

Graph: Contentness with the G20

Accountability in the Age of Global Governance

Accountability refers to the mechanisms of an institution that enable oversight to and domestication of the institution’s exercise of power. In global governance, many measures are not available that are customarily employed within the realm of states to provide checks and oversight, such as public elections. How institutions of global governance become accountable to those affected by their policies is hence a crucial question.

Accountability is constituted by three elements:

  1. the transparency of decision-making procedures and policies;
  2. the provision of justification for the decisions taken by the policy makers (answerability-components of accountability); and
  3. the opportunity of the governed to impose sanctions on the decision-makers in response to the policies (enforcement-component of accountability).

Transparency and justification are prerequisites for enforcement. Those who check on policies (and impose sanctions) need to know about the policies they are sanctioning and they need to understand the reasoning underlying the decisions of the institution in question. Additionally, many mechanisms such as accountability reports can allow an institution to learn from past experiences. The informal club nature of the G20 implies that it only has a limited range of mechanisms at hand to foster these different elements of accountability.

Infograph: Mechanisms to foster accountability

The G20 as Club Governance

The nature of policy making in the G20 is often described as club governance. Similar to other such “clubs” like the G7 or BRICS, the G20 does not have a charter or formal mandate. It is chaired by annually changing presidencies and holds no secretariat. Furthermore, agreements reached in the G20 are not legally binding; they are implemented through the member countries’ coordinated actions only. Yet, the G20 is more than its summits and more than a mere “negotiation table” of heads of state. It includes an extended process throughout the year: representatives of a number of ministries of the participating governments repeatedly come together in different work streams to discuss policy issues of international relevance, formulate common goals and develop joint initiatives.

Because of its club nature, the G20 faces a number of challenges with regard to accountability. The G20 cannot incorporate formal enforcement mechanisms without giving up on its very nature as an informal arrangement. Because deliberations take place behind closed doors, democratic oversight by parliaments or media is hardly possible. As a consequence, these obscure responsibilities allow governments to claim successes and blame others for less popular policy decisions.

Simple ways to improve the G20’s accountability

In a recent paper about the G20’s accountability, we argue that the most promising, and institutionally least demanding, way to improve on its accountability for the G20 would be to increase the transparency of its working procedures.

Currently, the G20 work streams self-report on their activities and what they see as their achievements. While it is commendable that the G20 tries to track its own work against its commitments, this type of self-reporting obviously tends to lead to overly positive assessments. This does not contribute much to increasing credibility, or to putting pressure on policy makers to stick to well-sounding commitments in actual policies.

Instead, facilitating informed external evaluation is a more promising way forward for the G20 to become a more accountable institution. This does not necessarily imply to give up a productive working atmosphere within the group. Modest, but helpful changes to create greater transparency would for example be: Opening up working group and ministerial meetings to selected observers, publishing minutes and agendas, and making working material available. While not making the G20 less effective, they would enable opportunities for independent observers to monitor and evaluate G20 policies. The resulting greater informational access would thus also indirectly facilitate at least weak forms of sanctions.

There are already exchanges by the G20 with different societal groups from academia, business, and the civil society, institutionalized in the G20’s Engagement Group processes. These clearly have the potential to increase the accountability of the G20 to different parts of the society, because the groups could act as a somewhat independent mediator between policy makers and society. Allowing selected observers from these groups to G20 working meetings should not restrict the G20’s potential for effective and trustful discussions, but would increase transparency and enable at least some degree of democratic oversight. The G20 should strengthen its exchange formats with these groups which could, moreover, by expanded to include organisations from other parts of the world to increase accountability to citizens of non-member countries. The recent inclusion of African think tanks in the Think20-dialogue with research institutes (T20 Africa Standing Group) is an example for such an inclusive process.

Certainly, increasing transparency through such measures alone could not render an exclusive club like the G20 fully accountable to the global citizenry. Considering the limited willingness of many powerful agents to be held accountable, incremental change, however, would already be a success.


The accountability mechanisms of the G20 and its reform needs in light of the 2030 Agenda are analysed by the authors of this blog post in a recent DIE Discussion Paper.

Photo: Jakob Schwab

Jakob Schwab is Researcher of the Research Programme "Transformation of Economic and Social Systems" at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

Photo: Sören Hilbrich

Sören Hilbrich is Researcher of the Research Programme "Transformation of Economic and Social Systems" at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

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  1. Pingback: Recalibrating The G20 in the Aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s Summit: Testing a Secretariat! - diemcarpe.club

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