G20: Why Accountability Must be Improved from Legal and Global Governance Perspectives

By Elen de Paula Bueno

Global governance has been facing significant challenges due to the lack of transparency and accountability, which in turn has hindered the effectiveness and legitimacy of the international system, making it increasingly difficult to address complex global issues.

Addressing these challenges is urgent because they have a direct impact on the trust that countries and their citizens have in international cooperation mechanisms. The lack of transparency and accountability can create an environment of suspicion, which can undermine the efforts made for international cooperation. Moreover, it can also lead to a lack of effectiveness in decisions and commitments made by policymakers, which can result in negative consequences for countries and their citizens.

Although the establishment of multilateral institutions and informal mechanisms of cooperation between states has been a significant milestone in the history of international relations, the current weaknesses related to transparency and accountability have highlighted the need for a comprehensive reform agenda and innovative solutions. To ensure that all stakeholders have a voice in the decision-making process and that the rules are being followed fairly, efficiently, and equitably, the reform of global governance must be grounded in the principles of participation, transparency, accountability, and effectiveness.

While at the national level, the concept of good governance involves the existence of democratic institutions, the rule of law, individual freedoms with the participation of civil society, transparency, and responsibility for actions committed by agents of the state (1) ; the governance at the international level adopts practices and principles sui generis due to the lack of state’s institutions which allows its enforcement. To guarantee effective transparency, accountability, and oversight mechanisms, several international organizations have taken it upon themselves to create tools and procedures to ensure these values within their operations. These organizations understand that to maintain public trust and credibility, they need to have effective supervision, internal controls, compliance, and other accountability mechanisms in place. These mechanisms are designed to ensure that policymakers and employees are held responsible for their actions and decisions, or non-compliance is swiftly addressed. By developing their own set of standards, procedures, and internal mechanisms, international organizations can ensure that they operate with integrity and transparency and that their actions align with their stated values, and international administrative law.

Despite the various efforts and initiatives, international organizations are still facing significant challenges in terms of legitimacy and adaptation to the changes brought about by the 21st century. To become more effective, these organizations must focus on innovation and reinforce their mechanisms based on inclusion and systemic reliability (2). This means that they need to adopt new and creative solutions to the problems they face while making sure that their systems are transparent, accountable, and responsive to the needs of all international community.

In the context of informal mechanisms such as G-20, G-7, and BRICS+, the challenges become even more complex. These multilateral mechanisms of cooperation lack a permanent secretariat and a related governance structure, which adds a particular dimension to their effectiveness in complying with the summit commitments.

The lack of transparency and the proliferation of numerous instruments have affected clarity on the G20’s decision-making process, and often resulted in confusion and mistrust among member countries, hindering the platform’s ability to deliver meaningful outcomes. Another crucial issue faced by the G20 is its lack of accountability towards the countries subject to its initiatives. The organization’s members are not legally bound to implement the policies and recommendations agreed upon in the meetings, leading to a lack of follow-through on key issues. This has resulted in a growing sense of dissatisfaction among citizens of member countries, with some feeling that their concerns are not being adequately addressed.

The proliferation of declarations emanating from informal mechanisms of cooperation has confirmed the predominance of non-binding normative framework (soft law) and its limits when it comes to effectiveness, compliance, and accountability. Even though soft law can be an instrument that affects the conduct of governments, an aspect that remains questionable is how soft law can ensure a higher degree of implementation of commitment taken at the national level. The increased reliance on soft law that could result in a loss of control over the political decision-making process has been a concern among some members of the G20 and scholars who emphasize the need for a minimum framework for international regulations and accountability (3).

From a legal perspective, G20 has been criticized for not being an open and transparent institution concerning its decision-making, and for assuming a mandate as a leading international economic policymaking body without any formal legal mandate. The G20’s existent fragilities can be attributed, in part, to a lack of an institutional structure and accountability towards the countries subject to its initiatives (4). In this sense, policymakers (5) and scholars have advocated the creation of a formal structure as an alternative to go further than the mere publication of indicators and their assessment against benchmark measures (6).

On the other hand, opposing voices consider that the informal structure should remain with no heavy bureaucratic secretariat, particularly due to its flexibility and adaptation for swift response. The existence of a heavy secretariat structure could undermine the commitment by the national government departments and agencies to the G20 summit processes (7). Alternatively, scholars suggest the possibility of setting up a small permanent secretarial structure at the IMF, avoiding therefore a large staffing, and bureaucracy (8).

To address these issues, G-20 needs to adopt more transparent and streamlined decision-making processes while ensuring its members are held accountable for implementing agreed-upon policies. This can include measures such as open communication channels, regular reporting and monitoring, and public access to information. For instance, one possible solution could be the creation of an independent oversight mechanism that would monitor the actions of its members and ensure that they comply with established guidelines.

In light of the new challenges faced by the global governance system, it is essential to explore potential strategies to increase transparency and accountability. One such strategy could be to leverage technology for a more efficient and streamlined decision-making process. Rather than having a traditional physical institutional structure, the G20 could create the first international virtual organization (IVO), which would operate entirely remotely, without a fixed location, relying on digital tools and virtual technology to carry out its activities.

The creation of an IVO could have significant benefits for global governance. Most notably, it would allow for a more agile response to pressing global issues. By operating remotely and without a fixed organizational structure, an IVO would have the flexibility needed to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and emerging challenges. This could be essential in situations where swift action is required. Additionally, an IVO would promote fairness and equality among its members. The chair of the IVO would rotate annually among its members, including the Troika system, ensuring that no single member country holds the permanent structure for an unlimited period. This would prevent any one member from having undue influence over the organization and help promote a more balanced decision-making process.
A virtual secretariat could be instrumental in ensuring that the recommendations of the G20 are being implemented effectively. By providing institutional mechanisms for monitoring, it would help to maintain a consistent and fair approach across all member countries. This has the potential to revolutionize global governance by enabling an efficient and just decision-making process through the IVO.

(1)World Bank, A Decade of Measuring the Quality of Governance. Worldwide Governance Indicators 1996-2006. (Washington DC: WBG, 2007).
(2)Robert Keohane, “The contingent legitimacy of multilateralism”, in Multilateralism under challenge? Power, international order, and structural change (New York: Social Science Research Council/ United Nations University, 2006), 74.
(3)Filipović Miroslava and Bunčić Sonja, “Building a global economic regime through soft law”. R. Bras. Eco. de Emp. (2014; 14, 1), 37-50.
(4)Kern Alexander et al, “The Legitimacy of the G20 – A Critique Under International Law” (April 14, 2014). Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2431164
(5)In 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, proposed the creation of a permanent G20 secretariat to follow up on the implementation of decisions. Nicolas Sarkozy Press Conference to present the presidency of the G20 and G8. Press Conference to present the presidency of the G20 and G8 Elysée Palace – Monday, 24 January 2011. Available at: https://newyork.consulfrance.org/nicolas-sarkozy-press-conference
(6)Neog Kangkanika Neog, “Doesn’t G20 need a Secretariat”? Observer Research Foundation, 2013. https://www.orfonline.org/research/doesnt-g20-need-a-secretariat
(7)Carin Barry. “A G20 Non Secretariat”. Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). https://www.kdi.re.kr/upload/15230/2-4.pdf
(8)Ignazio Angeloni, “The Group of 20: Trials of Global Governance in Times of Crisis”, in Bruegel Working Papers, No. 2011/12 (December 2011), 26 , https://www.bruegel. org/?p=6263