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Putting Health First from Start to Finish at the March 31 G20 Finance Meeting

John Kirton and Brittaney Warren, G20 Research Group
April 1, 2020

On March 31, 2020, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors assembled for their fourth meeting — their third virtual meeting — during the first three months of Saudi Arabia's year as G20 host. The 332-word, seven-paragraph press release issued by the Saudi presidency after their meeting produced six commitments. There the G20 finance ministers and central bankers put health first from the start through to the end.

Five of the six commitments explicitly referenced the COVID-19 pandemic as the welfare outcome focus of their work (see Appendix A). The sixth made an indirect link. None of the commitments was new, as the meeting was a follow-up to their leaders' videoconference on March 26. Thus the ministers and governors agreed to support the implementation of the commitments the leaders had made a few days prior.

These now shared commitments started with an agreement on "delivering a joint G20 Action Plan in Response to COVID-19, which will outline the individual and collective actions that G20 … will be taking to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic." The subsequent commitments specified the economic and financial measures the G20 would take to cope with the crisis. These moved from "supporting the global economy" to "debt vulnerabilities in low-income countries" to "international financial assistance to emerging markets and developing countries" and to coordinating "regulatory and supervisory measures taken by countries." They then "tasked the relevant working groups to deliver on the roadmap by their virtual meeting on 15 April 2020." They ended with health alone to "take urgent actions needed to address the global challenge presented by the COVID-19 pandemic." This was a vague statement that did not specify what these "urgent actions" would be. Yet the finance ministers and central bankers supported the leaders by recommitting to mobilize macroeconomic, development and financial regulatory instruments. They left trade instruments to their trade minister colleagues, who had met the day before and issued a statement. How quickly these instruments are deployed will directly affect human health.

Although the entire finance statement focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall results were two commitments on health alone; two on supporting developing countries, which importantly included debt relief; one each on macroeconomics and financial regulation; and one on G20 cooperation. Thus two commitments dealt with the G20's second distinctive foundational mission of making globalization work for all, and one focused on the G20's first such mission of promoting financial stability. Those two commitments related to globalization could be taken further to ensure long-term relief by cancelling low-income country debt altogether in an effort to ensure strengthened healthcare systems and infrastructure in those countries.

These six commitments are fewer than those produced by the finance ministers and central bank governors in the past (see Appendix B). At their July 2016 Chengdu meeting, they produced 27 commitments, including one on health on the subject of antimicrobial resistance. At their March 2017 Baden Baden meeting they produced 28 commitments, with none on health. At their July 2018 Buenos Aires meeting, they produced fewer than half of this, with 12, and none on health. At their June 2019 Fukuoka meeting, they produced 30 commitments, including one on health on the subject of universal health coverage. Lastly, so far this year the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors made six commitments in their March 6 virtual meeting, with four focusing on health and two on macroeconomic policy, and four commitments — one on health, one on international cooperation and two on macroeconomic policy — in their March 23 virtual meeting.

This ministerial level meeting was a direct, explicit implementation of the G20 leaders' commitment, which could help raise compliance. In addition to committing to their original plan to meet in April (now by videoconference on April 15 instead of in person in Washington on April 16-17), the finance ministers and central bank governors further intensified the same-year ministerial meetings that have proven to be a good predictor of compliance with G20 leaders' commitments. This raises the newer question of whether finance ministerial commitments on health will raise compliance with the leaders' commitments on these traditionally siloed subjects, and whether it will do so for both the relevant commitments made at the leaders' Osaka Summit in June 2019 as well as their videoconference on March 26, 2020.

The ministers and governors also included in their commitments the presumed compliance catalysts of a specified short-term timetable (April 15), and several specified agents, notably the Financial Stability Board as the core international organization on financial regulation and supervision, as well as their own "relevant working groups." However, in practice, these catalysts have little, if any reliable, impact on raising compliance with commitments in most subjects beyond health.

Moreover, although the relevance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group (WBG) were in the press release, there was no reference anywhere to the core multilateral organization on health — World Health Organization. This seems a strange omission for a set of six commitments that all addressed health in some way, and for a statement from finance ministers who met jointly with their health counterparts on the margins of the G20's Osaka Summit. When G20 finance ministers and central bank governors meet again in two weeks, they could usefully invoke the WHO in their commitments, and even in their gathering by inviting the director general of the WHO to participate again, along with the heads of WBG and IMF, especially as the IMF has already announced debt relief for low-income countries.

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Appendix A: G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Commitments, March 31, 2020

N = 6

Note: Commitments 2020-1 to 2020-10 were made at the meetings on March 6 and 23, 2020.

We agree to:
2020-11: Delivering a joint G20 Action Plan in Response to COVID-19, which will outline the individual and collective actions that G20 has taken and will be taking to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, while highlighting the needed medium-term measures to support the global economy during and after this phase. (health)

2020-12: Addressing the risk of debt vulnerabilities in low-income countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing these countries to focus their efforts on fighting this global challenge. (development)

2020-13: Working with relevant international organizations to swiftly deliver the appropriate international financial assistance to emerging markets and developing countries to cope with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. (development)

2020-14: Working with the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in its capacity to coordinate regulatory and supervisory measures taken by countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (financial regulation)

2020-15: The G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors tasked the relevant working groups to deliver on the roadmap by their virtual meeting on 15 April 2020. (international cooperation)

2020-16: They agreed to continue to discuss and take urgent actions needed to address the global challenge presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. (health)

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Appendix B: G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Commitments 2016–2020

N=113

Issue area Total 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Chengdu,
July 23–24
Baden Baden,
March 17–18
Buenos Aires,
July 22
Fukuoka,
June 8–9
Virtual,
March 6
Virtual,
March 23
Virtual,
March 31
Financial regulation 29 10 7 7 4     1
Macroeconomics 21 5 5 2 5 2 2  
Taxation 11 1 5 1 4      
Reform of international financial institutions 7   3   4      
Health 9 1     1 4 1 2
Crime and corruption 6   1   5      
International cooperation 8 1 4   1   1 1
Terrorism 5 2 1 1 1      
Debt 4       4      
Trade 3 3            
Development 5 1 1   1     2
Climate 2 2            
Energy 2 1 1          
Digitalization 1     1        
Total 113 27 28 12 30 6 4 6

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