No.3 - April 2013

by Ramesh Thakur

The G20 versus the UN : Rival Development Forums?


The Group of 20 nations is more in tune with contemporary development paradigms than the UN.  However, there remains an essential balancing role for the UN development system.

Representing two-thirds of the worlds’ total population, the G20 accounts for 80–90 percent of the world’s gross product, trade, and economic growth and, importantly, most of the world’s poor (including half the world population of people living on less than US$1.25 per day). Broadly representative of the global diversity of power, wealth, poverty, and values, the G20 augments the formal forums of organized multilateralism with an informal institutional setting for the key players to engage each other directly and personally minus the UN’s bureaucratic baggage and the IFI’s political baggage. In short, it is a better place to do business.

If the G20 and the UN are perceived and function as zero-sum alternatives, both will lose legitimacy and effectiveness. The loosely structured and informal multilateral G20 has a comparative advantage in gathering the most important countries in a business-like atmosphere. The UN-centered formal multilateral organizations are a necessary complement. The G20 and the UN development system should support and strengthen each other in delivering common goals.

Alternatively, the UN system could confound doubters and skeptics, reform structures and procedures, realign itself to today’s world problems and challenges as well as economic weight and geopolitical clout and not the imagined world of 1945, become tougher in compliance with respect both to pledges of assistance and performance benchmarks, and so render the G20 and other alternative forums as irrelevant and obsolete. But don’t hold your breath.

Ramesh Thakur is the Director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australia National University. He was vice rector and senior vice rector of United Nations University (and assistant secretary-general of the UN) from 1998–2007.  His most recent book is "The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics".
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