The G20 civil dialogue: “Our expectations were low and we weren’t disappointed.”

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Today in South Korea, G20 negotiators  (who have the undeservedly cool job title of Sherpa) met collectively with civil society for the first time.

We were left with no illusions about our status – the meeting was outside the official programme one month before the main event, Sherpas were volunteering to meet   us in their spare time,  and we were only allowed to asked pre-cooked questions (and listen to pre-cooked answers).  Compared to the business interaction (or B20 as they get called), where heads of companies meet heads of state, and more importantly the private sector participate in and influence the outcomes of G20 working groups, we are still shabby second cousins, treated with some circumspection.

But on the whole it’s been a positive experience.

Now we know who they are and what they look and talk like (for fun, if you’re in a G20 country, try to find out who your Sherpa is) and they have had at least to read our opinions on what they are doing.

We also learnt a few things – when their shadowy working groups have been meeting and their plans  on corruption and development, for example. And we got to enjoy an awkward silence after they were asked about including human rights as well as growth objectives in their development agenda.

Most important, both sides left with the impression that this is something we should do again. As NGOs we may disapprove of how the G20 is organised and many of the things that it does – but not engaging with it won’t make it go away or get any better. For the Sherpas, the NGOs provide a much-needed link to those who have a big stake and little voice in the crisis recovery agenda – poor farmers, micro-enterprises and workers in low-income countries, allies and experts on some issues, as well as a bellwether for public opinion.

Meeting in a half-finished special economic zone, whose rapid expansion appears to have stopped mid-brick when the economic crisis set in, reminds us how quickly fortunes can change if the G20 doesn’t find the right fix. They need all the help they can get.

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