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A Small Short-Term Success at the G20's Riyadh Summit

John Kirton, G20 Research Group, November 22, 2020 (Updated 21:00 EST)

I am grateful for the contributions of Madeline Koch, Brittaney Warren, Julia Kulik, Katherine Yampolsky, Julia Tops and other members of the G20 Research Group.

The G20 Riyadh Summit, held virtually on November 21-22, 2020, has turned out at best to be a small, short-term success. It has done just enough to hold out hope that the world get through its immediate crises of COVID-19, economic recession and soaring developing country debt for the next few months, while doing very little on the bigger, longer term issues of digitalization and, above all, the existential threat of climate change. It is clear the G20 will need another summit very soon, under its new Italian presidency, as the new year gets underway.

Steps Forward

Controlling COVID-19 was Riyadh's strongest success. G20 leaders affirmed the proper principles — that the safe, effective vaccines would be rapidly produced in large quantities, and rolled out in affordable, equitable ways around the world. On these "effective COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines," they stated "we will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people, consistent with members' commitments to incentivize innovation." But not all leaders agreed to add that these vaccines should go first to those in all countries who needed them most, with healthcare and other front-line workers first. On this key component, the compelling calls of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, and of the world's scientists were ignored.

G20 leaders did promise in general terms that they would provide the minimal amount of new money needed immediately — starting with the $4.5 billion for the Access to COVID-19 (ACT) Tools Accelerator Initiative and the COVAX facility before year's end. But they offered no dollar figure or deadline that would lock them in.

On support for the severe economic recession, G20 leaders wisely promised yet again to do whatever necessary to stop the fall and support a recovery. But this is now by continuing to do what they were already doing, rather by providing stronger, longer fiscal and monetary stimulus and financial stability actions in support. They announced no new coordinated stimulus, let alone any close to the $1.1 trillion G20 leaders raised on the spot at their second summit in London on April 1-2, 2009, to counter the escalating global financial crisis then. Nor did they ask members to overcome the internal deadlocks to allow the United States and European Union provide any more serious stimulus, even as the second and third waves of COVID-19 again send their economies into lockdown and decline.

On development and debt relief, more real money was promised. But it would flow from a "common framework" that would provide a few countries with debt reductions in the future, rather than the money that many needed now.


Yet several serious shortcoming stand out.

The urgent need to launch a new regime for digital taxation was delayed from the earlier deadline of the end of 2020 to mid 2021, just when G20 and other governments desperately need more tax revenues to control their soaring deficit and debts and save their citizens' lives.

On food security, they did not even acknowledge, let alone act against, the starvation currently spreading among so many, thanks to COVID-19, climate change and conflict. The compelling plea from David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme, and the Nobel Peace Prize Committee behind him, was entirely ignored.

Climate change, the only truly existential crisis, was largely left unaddressed in any serious way.

This time there was no separate paragraph covering or written by the United States alone. But a heavy price was paid, as all the other paragraphs covering all were watered down. The central, long-unfulfilled commitment to phase out fossil fuels subsidies was repeated, in a more elusive or qualified way than it had been before. G20 leaders could not even commit to doing their fair share to meet the long-agreed global goal of planting one trillion trees, despite the fact that Donald Trump publicly agreed to it long ago abroad and at home and repeated it in his video address prepared for the side event on "Safeguarding the Planet" just a few hours before the communiqué appeared.

Human rights were absent. Unlike the declarations of all G20 summits from 2015 to 2019, including the one hosted by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2016, the Riyadh declaration contains no affirmation of the value of human rights. Intellectual property rights were the only rights that the Riyadh leaders proclaimed.

Perhaps the greatest shortcoming was the decision to delay G20 summit governance for another year. At the end of the formal handover from the current chair of Saudi Arabia to the new one of Italy, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced that he would hold the next G20 summit on October 30-31. But he did not speed up the schedule to hold it between April and September, as his predecessors have done twice in 2009, in 2012, 2016, 2017 and in 2019 at Osaka last year.   Nor did he invite his fellow leaders to an emergency one much earlier, as Saudi Arabia did on March 26 this year, so they could lead the world in helping solve all the serious problems that the Riyadh leaders have left for others to deal with later on.

Another surprise was the shift in the hosting sequence of subsequent G20 summits. India, which had slated to follow Italy by hosting in 2022, was now bumped down the line to 2023, for reasons yet to be explained.

Dimensions of Performance

These judgements are confirmed by a systematic analysis of the summit's collective communiqué, in the form of the Leaders' Declaration.


In its private deliberations, the Riyadh meeting was the shortest regular G20 summit ever, at about four hours in two sessions of about two hours each, one held on each day. Moreover, due to the digital format and constrained by globe-spanning time zones, there was no opportunity for personal discussions or interactions, beyond bilateral phone calls or possible use of private chatting function that are a poor substitute for coffee breaks, corridor conversations, pull asides, walks in the woods, or even accidental encounters between and among leaders elsewhere around the summit site. Moreover, although all G20 leaders attended, including U.S. president Donald Trump, on both days, several took advantage of the video format to skip some parts and put a minister or sherpa in their place.

In its public deliberations, Riyadh's communiqué conclusions consisted of 5,697 words in 78 paragraphs in 12 pages (including the one-page annex listing 33 documents previously produced by ministers and officials). This was the second smallest document issued at the G20's 15 regular summits, and the smallest since its first, prepared in only 24 days, at Washington DC on November 14-15, 2008.

Domestic Political Management

There were four communiqué compliments (i.e., a complimentary reference to a G20 member), below the G20 average of 4.6, but above those awarded at the three regular summits immediately before. At Riyadh there were two compliments for Saudi Arabia, and one each for Japan and China. The summit "commend[ed] the Saudi Presidency for initiating discussions on the need for long-term solutions to address gaps" and welcomed it "joining the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] Working Group on Bribery." It complimented Japan for its determination to hold the Olympics in 2021 and looked forward to the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

Direction Setting

In its principled and normative decision making, the Riyadh Summit did nothing to respond to the usual attention of the media and many non-governmental organizations about how the G20 and its 2020 host would respect and enhance human rights. It made no affirmations of this value, despite having done so at every one of its regular summits dating back to 2015.


At Riyadh, G20 leaders made 107 commitments with sufficient precision, future orientation and political obligation to qualify as such. This was the third lowest among the G20's 15 regular summits. Only the first summit at Washington in 2008 with 95, and the third summit at Toronto in June 2010 with 61 had fewer. Riyadh thus produced only one fifth (20%) as many commitments as the G20's Hamburg Summit in 2017, whose 529 commitments was the G20's peak. Riyadh's 107 commitments were also just more than half (55%) the average of 195 of the 14 regular summits before.

By subject, the Riyadh Summit's 107 commitments were led by health with 14 (13%), somewhat surprisingly tied with crime and corruption. In third came trade with 10 (9%), followed by macroeconomic policy with nine (8%), gender with 8 (7%), development with seven (7%), and labour and employment, financial regulation, and the natural environment each with six (4%). Human rights as a category had four (covering child labour, forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery in the world of work), as did energy. Then with only three each came climate change, the digital economy, international taxation, food and agriculture, and infrastructure. At the bottom came reform of international financial institutions with two, and migration and refugees and international cooperation with one each. This decisional performance covered 19 separate subjects in all, providing substantial breadth.

On the component of money mobilized, Riyadh produced no commitments with a specified dollar amount to be provided by the G20 would provide in the time ahead, let alone by any specified or suggested date. In sharp contrast, it did not hesitate to use such numbers or dates to proclaim how much money the G20 has raised in the recent past. The implication was that no more money was needed now.

Development of Global Governance

In the institutionalized development of global governance, Riyadh's performance was similarly small.

Inside the G20, the Riyadh declaration made 30 references to its internal institutions. This was the fourth lowest ever (after 2008 and London in 2009 and Osaka in 2019), and lower than the average of 67 for regular summits. These references were led by 10 mentions of the G20 in general, 10 of a G20 member, four of G20 ministers, four of a G20 Action Plan (by the most generous definition of an institution), and one each of the G20 summit and G20 body.

In developing international institutions outside the G20, Riyadh's performance was solid. Its 58 references were the sixth lowest among the 15 regular G20 summits, and only about one third of the G20 average of 144. They were led by reference to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with 10, the OECD with nine, the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) with seven (if it qualifies as an institution), the Financial Stability Board (FSB) with six, the International Labour Organization with five, the World Bank Group and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) with four each, and the United Nations, Paris Club, World Health Organization (WHO) and Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI) with two each. The World Trade Organization (WTO), International Organization for Migration (IMO), the UN High Commission for Refugees, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and COVAX facility had one each.

Grouped by subject, there were 25 references to the economic and finance bodies (of the IMF, OECD and FSB), 25 to development ones (World Bank, DSSI, Paris Club and GPFI). The three health bodies (WHO, ACT Accelerator, COVAX) had only four. Despite the centrality of the shock-activated vulnerability of COVID-19, the G20 summit remained heavily focused on economic-finance and development in its broader development of global governance. That partly reflects the fact that the IMF and World Bank are G20 members.  The balance also suggests that in this dimensions, the Riyadh Summit gave relatively equal attention to each of its two distinctive foundational missions of promoting financial stability (through the IMF, OECD and FSB) and making globalization work for the benefit of all (through the World Bank, DSSI, Paris Club and GPFI).


The Riyadh Summit's Leaders' Declaration contained many acknowledgements of what needs to be done, but relatively few commitments to do it, and ever fewer to do big, bold new ones, with the precision, high targets and short-term deadlines required for a world being ravaged by COVID-19, starvation and climate change. Most Riyadh commitments merely promised to continue doing what leaders have done before, rather than add anything new. The new commitments were primarily launching low-level processes, rather than producing new money or other products on the spot. Some observers might sadly conclude that Riyadh's main message from G20 leaders was steady as she goes while the global ship swiftly sinks. But Riyadh's leaders did just enough to keep their G20 ship afloat, so they can do much more to save all the passengers on our fragile plant in the months and years ahead.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G20 Research Group, G7 Research Group and Global Health Diplomacy Program and co-director of the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Polic at the University of Toronto. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. His most recent books include Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Routledge 2018), China's G20 Leadership (Routledge, 2016), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015), and Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa: Disease, Govenance, Climate Change, co-edted with Andrew F. Cooper, Franklyn Lisk and Hany Besada (Ashgate, 2014). Kirton is also co-editor with Madeline Koch of several publications on the G20, the G7 and global health governance, including G20 Saudi Arabia: The 2020 Riyadh Summit (available soon from the Global Governance Project!) and G7 France: The 2019 Biarritz Summit, and, with the support of the World Health Organization, Health: A Political Choice — Act Now, Together, published by GT Media and the Global Governance Project.

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