To revive multilateralism, the G7 must make a clean break with the past
We cannot repeat the mistakes made after the 2008 financial crisis, which hampered progress on climate change and worsened inequality
After four years of discord and obstruction during the Trump presidency, there is a distinctly upbeat mood around the G7 meetings this year. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has committed to strengthening global cooperation, heralding what his treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, has called “a revival of multilateralism”.
Tangible signs of that revival have certainly appeared over the past five months: world leaders have agreed to issue new Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), curtail corporate tax avoidance, launch negotiations over a patent waiver to increase production of COVID-19 vaccines, and renew climate commitments.
But this ‘progress’ has not turned around the fortunes of the poorest countries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, both in terms of excess deaths and economic damage, and which are now facing a hazardous combination of debt distress and fiscal asphyxiation. A series of half-baked wins is nothing to celebrate if it feeds complacency in the face of ongoing tragedy.
Among the three big items on the agenda at this year’s G7 meeting – ending the pandemic, boosting the economic recovery, and addressing climate change – there is plenty to be keeping participants awake during their Cornish stay.
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Beyond vaccine scarcity
The opportunity to follow a multilateral path for global vaccination was missed early in the pandemic when the World Health Organization’s proposal for a COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to share vaccine technology and know-how was rebuffed. Instead, around $100bn in public investment went to pharmaceutical companies to get vaccine development off the ground, enabling the privatisation of what should have been a global public good.
In an effort to reverse this move, South Africa and India initiated a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October 2020 to temporarily waive the trade related intellectual property rights for pandemic-related products – including vaccines – to enable an expansion of production. This proposal has garnered the support of the majority of countries at the WTO as well as an impressive roster of public figures from across the world. Until recently however, it had been blocked by most G7 countries, who at the same time have engaged in vaccine hoarding.
Although some countries, notably the US, have since reversed this opposition, the danger of delay and defer – familiar from similar negotiations that took place over a waiver for HIV treatment – will leave the full vaccination of the poorest countries decades away, at an estimated cost to the global economy of more than $9trn. G7 leaders need to commit to an accelerated timetable for completing these negotiations and scaling up manufacturing across regions.
An economic recovery for all
In the absence of a coordinated global recovery strategy and a multilateral mechanism to address debt distress, prospects of recovery across much of the developing world have been left in the very visible hands of powerful creditor countries in the G20. Debt suspension rather than cancellation has been the favoured response, and in amounts that show little appreciation for the deep economic stress the pandemic has caused. Crucially, the debt suspension mechanisms don’t include all countries facing debt distress, many of whom are also climate vulnerable; and they don’t compel private creditors to participate, meaning cash-strapped countries are continuing to pay vulture funds while being unable to boost public spending. G7 leaders will need to address these shortcomings if they want to take ‘Building Back Better’ from the press briefing to the fields and streets of the Global South.
G7 recovery funds have been much more generous to the fossil fuel industry than clean forms of energy
While an SDR allocation worth $650bn is now working its way through the International Monetary Fund apparatus, after being blocked by the Trump administration, the amount apportioned to lower income countries is far less than is needed. There is an expectation that the SDRs of wealthy countries could be ‘recycled’ to aid poorer countries’ recovery, but routes favoured appear to be laden with regressive conditionalities, further indebtedness or – as pursued by the UK – reductions in Overseas Development Assistance. G7 countries can choose to opt for recycling mechanisms that don’t come with these strings to give the best chance at recovery.
Agreement on a global minimum corporation tax rate achieved by G7 finance ministers is a step in the right direction to remove incentives for tax havens. But once again, it comes with critical failings. New tax revenue raised will mostly benefit wealthier countries where companies are headquartered, whether or not their profit is made elsewhere. Moreover, the rate of 15% does not target all multinationals, is far lower than was anticipated, and still faces political hurdles in developed-country tax havens.
Of course, multilateral approaches always include negotiation and compromise, but this is a deal that so far has been hashed out between G7 members which will only undermine mutual trust if it does not address the concerns of lower income countries.
Meeting the climate challenge together
In May a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that new oil, gas or coal development was incompatible with keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Shortly after, it was revealed that G7 stimulus packages have so far failed to bake in a green recovery. G7 recovery funds have been much more generous to the fossil fuel industry than clean forms of energy, with 80% of that support coming with no green strings attached.
The IEA report was also clear that existing technology was sufficient to achieve the energy transition, but what was lacking was the level of investment necessary. This requires a doubling of global investment in green energy to close to $5trn per year by 2030 globally – a far cry from the $100bn target that wealthy countries have set themselves (but are yet to meet) to support the mitigation and adaptation needs of the Global South.
One announcement that is anticipated from the G7 meeting is a green ‘Marshall Plan’ to match China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, while this seems bent on following its namesake into geopolitical conflicts there is little evidence that it will match its financial generosity or nuanced policy approach. A revived multilateralism founded on a rebooted Cold War is unlikely to benefit the majority of the world, and may well threaten the needed collective action on development and climate goals.
The desire to revive multilateralism is commendable, but it will not be delivered if we see a repeat of the same mistakes that hampered progress on development and climate goals after the global financial crisis, increasing inequality and precarity everywhere. What we need more than ever is a new multilateralism built on shared principles and goals to harness global cooperation to the requirements of a sustainable future for all people.
If the multilateral revival is to receive a Cornish fillip, we will need to see “a little less conversation and a little more action” in the days ahead.
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