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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has proposed to the G20 leaders that the AU be given full, permanent membership of the G20 at the Delhi summit in September.

Modi is not the first to make that call, though he is the first to act on it. African countries have long sought the continent’s full participation in G20 deliberations. SA argued soon after the 2008 financial crisis that elevated the G20 finance track to the G20 summit, that Africa needed to have greater formal representation.

Soon afterwards the AU and New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) became regular invitees to the G20, though different presidencies involved them more or less directly in the deliberations of the various work streams. 

In 2022 AU chair president Macky Sall of Senegal called for the AU to be made a full member. He argued that in excluding most of the continent the G20 “compromises its effectiveness and influence” as the world’s “main vehicle for collaborative multilateral governance of the world economy”. Furthermore, Africa’s absence constrained its ability to provide views on major global economic issues at the G20 summits as well as ministerial and technical meetings. 

In the past several months the US, China and France have all backed the proposal to include the AU in the G20, and it is unlikely that other G20 countries will block it. But why the sudden rush to invite the AU to be a full member? 

Double standards

The geopolitical turmoil of the past year has a lot to do with it. The major powers have different stakes in the unfolding geopolitical competition. The West is still reeling from the Global South’s nonaligned stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calls for negotiations and peace.

Global South countries have reminded the West of its double standards, of its rhetorical support for developing country concerns, which have not been matched by action (such as vaccine apartheid, debt sustainability and development finance), and of its own violation of some of the principles of the UN Charter when it suited it. Inviting the AU into the G20 is therefore partly a charm offensive to counter these negative sentiments. 

For India, bringing the AU into the G20 during its presidency demonstrates its own Global South credentials, which it has emphasised as central to its G20 aims. In January India convened a hybrid Voice of the Global South Summit in which more than 120 Global South countries participated.

In his address, Modi articulated his four “R’s: respond to the priorities of the Global South, recognise the principles of common but differentiated responsibilities, respect international law and territorial sovereignty, and reform international institutions, including the UN.

Throughout its G20 presidency India has reiterated the importance of returning development to the centre of the grouping’s agenda, taking advantage of the fact that it is the second in four developing country presidencies — starting with Indonesia in 2022 and ending with SA in 2025. (Brazil takes over from India in 2024.) 

China, the other major developing country power in the G20, also regards itself as a supporter of the Global South and in particular Africa. There is an unspoken competition between the two Asian powers about carrying the mantle of the Global South. 

Raise questions

With the West allied against it, Russia has accelerated its wooing of African countries. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has visited several African countries in the past year, and the second Africa-Russia summit will take place in St Petersburg in July. Russia’s warm relations with African countries enable it to cock a snook at the West and its attempts to isolate it.

In all these instances, supporting the expansion of the G20 is not politically costly, nor will it disrupt intra-G20 dynamics. It is also easier to include the AU as a member than to choose from specific African country contenders, though this does raise questions about potential membership of other regional groupings.    

The more important question the AU, and SA as the only African country on the G20, must consider is what effective participation in the G20 would mean; a seat at the table is the first step, but it is not sufficient. 

Effectiveness can relate to setting the agenda, determining processes, having outcomes that reflect a country or region’s objectives and interests. It may also include the extent to which a country or region plays a role in mobilising coalitions within bigger groupings to advance certain objectives and interests. Knowing the informal rules and dynamics is part of the intangible elements of effectiveness. 

In the past, when the AU was an observer to the G20, the rotating chair of the AU represented the continent, which means a different country would take over every year. The EU is a member of the G20 but is a supranational body, unlike the AU. The president of the commission and the other officials who sit in the various meetings do not rotate annually and have authority to speak on behalf of their members.   

Provide support

As a full G20 member SA has designated units and officials dealing with various G20 issues in both the “sherpa” and the finance tracks. The officials are experienced, familiar with the technical elements as well as the politics and the perspectives of different countries, and have an administrative structure backing them.

To overcome the challenge posed by the annual rotation of the chair, the AU Commission could establish a G20 unit that would provide support to each incoming chair. Commission officials would work with officials of the AU chair and attend G20 meetings with them. SA and UN Economic Commission for Africa could provide support in this regard. After all, there is no incentive for every African country that is not a full member of the G20 to establish a G20 unit in its administration. 

There is also the issue of mandate. How would the AU chair represent the diverse interests of its members? The AU would need to develop a streamlined consultation mechanism (such as the AU Bureau that operated effectively during the pandemic) to provide a mandate to the chair from year to year.

Joining the G20 as a full member is a great opportunity for Africa to amplify its voice in global economic governance. It also builds on the continent’s display of increasing agency on global matters, such as the recent peace mission to Ukraine and Russia. However, realising the opportunity requires building technical capacity and decision-making mechanisms that enable meaningful participation.

• Sidiropoulos is CEO of the SA Institute of International Affairs and a co-chair of the task force on accelerating the sustainable development goals in the Indian Think 20.

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