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23 July 2020, Gateway House

The B20: Riyadh and beyond

The COVID crisis compelled a change in the Business20 (B20) focus areas to reviving health, health facilities and business activity in 2020. India must start work now to give the B20 even greater responsiveness and relevance as the prospective G20 chair in 2022.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The G20 – the world’s premier multilateral forum – continues to display strength and resilience because of its intimate connections with key segments of member-states viz. business, think-tanks, labour, women and others. The thinking and work of these ‘engagement groups’[1]help G20 leaders to make decisions that are inclusive and acceptable to large segments of their polities.

The Business20 or B20, was the first engagement group to emerge, in 2010 when the presidency was held first by Canada and then South Korea.

As the collective business voice to G20 governments, the B20 systematically develops and transmits practical policy recommendations to governments. It is composed of business representatives from G20 countries, the special invitee countries of the host presidency, and a handful of international business organisations. A total of 31 institutions participated[2] at the B20 Tokyo summit in March 2019, under Japan’s G20 Presidency. India was represented by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

As the G20 summit transitions from Osaka to Riyadh, under the current Saudi G20 Presidency, a close look at the recent evolution in views and recommendations of the B20 shows how quickly the world has changed.

Just a year ago, in Tokyo, business leaders were busy articulating the need for and importance of international cooperation, and the role the G20 could play to strengthen it. The B20, especially, presented a future vision anchored in realising the ‘Creative Society’ envisaged in ‘Society 5.0 for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’.[3] The policy recommendations that emerged from this vision covered: digital transformation, trade and investment, energy and environment, quality infrastructure, health and integrity “for all”.[4]

Six months later, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. One year after the G20 summer summit in Osaka, the global total of confirmed infection cases and deaths has climbed to 14.89 million and 615,465 respectively.[5]The global economy stands seriously damaged and is heading for contraction, with developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) being worst hit.

The COVID-19 catastrophe has forced a fundamental shift in the deliberations and decision-making of the G20 and its engagement groups. B20, with a sharp awareness of the pandemic’s damaging implications for global health as well as the world economy, took some key actions:

a) In March 2020, an open letter representing the views of B20, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) was presented to the G20. On health, it called on G20 leaders to substantially improve experience-sharing and monitoring and use the private sector to support testing. On the economy, a call was given for implementing short-and-medium fiscal policy measures to support economic activity. Governments were also advised to urgently scale up social protection for displaced and affected workers.[6]

b) B20’s Saudi Arabian lead, welcomed the outcome of the Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ virtual summit, held on 26 March 2020.Its statement also praised the G20’s recognition of the useful role the private sector could play in rapid development, monitoring and distribution of diagnostics, anti-viral medicines and vaccines to fight the pandemic.[7]

c) Through a joint statement, the B20, the Labour20 (L20) and the Women20 (W20) underlined the need for the G20 to adopt a “coordinated and gender-sensitive response to an unprecedented global health, social and economic crisis”.[8]

As chair of the B20, Saudi Arabia, itself deeply impacted by COVID-19 with over 200,000 infected and over 2,500 deaths, and historically low oil prices, confronts the twin challenge of guiding the G20 to

a) pursue a comprehensive strategy on all COVID-19-related issues, and

b) re-focus on B20’s regular agenda of economic growth.

Saudi Arabia is coordinating preparatory work under three linked themes: Women in Business, Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and Entrepreneurship,and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The empowerment of women, it insists, should be a top item on the agenda. SMEs, accounting for over 90% of all businesses, have a crucial role in national economies.

The Saudi chair has also set up taskforces to deliberate on and craft policy recommendations on six specific themes: digitalisation; energy; sustainability and climate; finance and infrastructure; future of work and education; integrity and compliance; and trade and investment.

The entire B20 agenda in respect to the war against COVID-19, the three themes and the domains covered by the six taskforces is of considerable interest to India Inc. This is demanded not only by the expectations that are placed on the Riyadh summit, but also by India’s approaching responsibilities to take over as chair of the G20 in 2022. While CII has been driving preparations for the future on behalf of the Indian business community, it seems that there is much scope for other apex industry chambers and think-tanks to step up their engagement and contribute more pro-actively to the deliberations and ongoing work of B20.

In less than six months, the Saudi presidency will end. Once Italy takes over as the chair of the G20, India will join the G20 Troika, the three-member country committee chaired by current summit presidency.

Neither the government nor India Inc. has time to lose. They must now work on a vision integrating India’s own priorities such as ‘reformed multilateralism’, free and fair trade based on ‘self-reliant’ economic growth, better digital regulation and effective curbs on terrorism and international crime to shape the G20/ B20 agenda of the future.They should also accelerate strategising on how to make the B20, under Indian leadership, more effective and more relevant to global needs.[9]

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador. He comments regularly on issues relating to G20 among other multilateral groupings.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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References

[1] These are: Business20, Think20, Civil20, Labour20, Science20, Womens20 and Urban20

[2] B20 Tokyo Summit Joint Recommendations “Society 5.0 for SDGs” ‘, B20 Tokyo 2019, 15 March 2019,  http://www.keidanren.or.jp/en/policy/2019/020_Recommendations.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Coronavirus Resource Center, CIVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins’, John Hopkins University & Medicine,

https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

[6] ‘Open letter to G20 Heads ofState and Government’, ICC and WHO, 23 March 2020,

http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/b20/2020-B20_WHO_and_ICC_joint_letter.pdf

[7] Al-Benyan, Yousef, ‘B20 Saudi Arabia, the official voice of the private sector to the G20, welcomes the G20 Leaders’ commitment to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic’, B20 Saudi Arabia 2020, 27 March 2020,

http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/b20/B20-welcomes-the-G20-Leaders-commitment-to-tackle-the-COVID19-pandemic-En.pdf

[8] ‘Joint Statement on Employment, Skills & Women’, B20, L20, W20, 5 April 2020,

http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/b20/B20-L20-W20-final-statement-2020.pdf

[9] For backdrop, see Rajiv Bhatia, ‘The action imperative for G20’, Gateway House, 2 April 2020,

https://www.gatewayhouse.in/g20-action/ and

Rajiv Bhatia, ‘G20’s role in the COVID-era’, Gateway House, 21 May 2020,

https://www.gatewayhouse.in/g20-covid-19/

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