Think again, G20 sceptics

Almost six months ago, at a moment of great alarm about the global financial and economic crisis, G20 leaders met for a historic summit in London. Their collective commitments to stimulate, regulate and restructure global economic activity helped to calm nerves around the world.

Many of the problems that spurred that summit remain real. Anxiety levels may have come down in boardrooms and stock markets, but the daily drama for survival continues. Indeed, for many in the world's least developed countries it has deepened – particularly in Africa.

The United Nations and the World Bank predict that the direct and indirect effects of the economic meltdown will be felt in the developing world for a long time to come. Jobs have gone, incomes have been lost and opportunities foregone. Tens of millions of people have been added to the hundreds of millions already below the poverty line, reversing progress toward attaining the world's Millennium Development Goals.

The London meeting recognised that the poorest countries and people should not be penalised by a crisis for which they were not responsible. With this in mind, the G20 leaders set out an ambitious agenda for an inclusive and wide-ranging response. If the Pittsburgh summit is not to be an anticlimactic end to the G20's ascendancy as a forum for decisive action, the momentum generated must be maintained. Four issues provide the opportunity to do so.

First, leaders need to follow through with the commitments they have made to a Global Plan for Recovery and Reform. Having recognised its "collective responsibility to mitigate the social impact of the crisis and minimise long-lasting damage to global potential", the group now needs to review how much support has reached or become accessible to developing countries.

There are some encouraging signs. In July, for example, the IMF commendably announced a substantial increase in concessional lending to least developed countries. Several, including Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa, have already been allocated special drawing rights to cope with the economic crisis. But some vulnerable countries are still struggling to finance countercyclical investment and expanded social protection services – raising questions about the stringencies of the World Bank's eligibility criteria and allocation models, which can prevent support of the most needy.

This underscores the case for a second area of action: ensuring that developing countries, including the least developed ones, have a greater say in global financial institutions; and strengthening regional bodies such as the African Development Bank. An equitable and fair global architecture means not only giving a greater say to the major emerging economies. It also means systematically including other developing countries.

The Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, recognise themselves that becoming more inclusive would make them more relevant to the reality and diversity of today's global community, and more effective as vehicles for addressing climate change adaptation and poverty reduction. But the pace of change needs to be speeded up, ensuring that the IMF in particular is able to adapt to post-crisis challenges.

This calls for a broadening of the IMF's surveillance mandate beyond macroeconomic and monetary policies so that it can deal with wider financial and regulatory issues. It means establishing a high-level political council to take strategic decisions critical to global stability. And it also requires reforming the voting system to ensure that decisions command the support of the majority of members.

Architectural and institutional reform has to be complemented by a third achievement: agreement on a timetable for tackling the variety of biased trade rules, bloated subsidy regimes, intellectual property rules and other forms of market distortion that heavily disadvantage the developing world. Here the G20 could play a particularly constructive role, especially when it comes to the revival of the Doha trade round; the reduction of duties, tariffs and quotas on exports from the least developed countries; and the gradual elimination of domestic subsidies.

Last, the G20 could also help drive momentum on climate change. Its members account for the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions; an agreement among them at Pittsburgh would go a long way towards ensuring that December's international climate change conference in Copenhagen does not end in hot air.

Progress is needed on emission-reduction targets and on sharing knowledge and technology more widely. We also have to find a way to provide funding for adaptation and mitigation – to protect people from the impact of climate change and enable economies to grow while holding down pollution levels – while guarding against trade protection in the name of climate change mitigation.

The challenges of our time are many, complex and intertwined. The G20 in London was responsive to the concerns and special circumstances of the developing world, which resulted in some big thinking. Sceptics fear that – now the collective financial threat is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be manageable – the Pittsburgh summit will result in a weak compromise that reflects divergent national interests rather than a sense of urgency about tackling climate change, chronic poverty and ineffective global governance. G20 leaders need again to manage difficult domestic pressures, overcome narrow agendas and resist populist temptations – and prove the sceptics wrong.

Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations and president of the Kofi Annan Foundation and chair of the Africa Progress Panel, Amartya Sen, a Harvard University professor and a Nobel prize-winning economist and Michel Camdessus, a member of the Africa Progress Panel.