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AU’s membership of G21 marks turning point in global cooperation and peaceful integration


John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 2023 G21 summit may well be remembered for its commitment to bridge a perilous North–South divide in the aftermath of a global pandemic and amid a growing list of common threats and regional or subnational wars and deadly conflict.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on 9 September 2023 welcomed the African Union as only the second regional organisation to join the G20, now G21. 

The 19 nations plus the European Union already represent, according to a summit backgrounder, “around 85% of global GDP, 75% of global trade, and two-thirds of world population.” The African Union, adds another 55 countries, comprising a rapidly growing population of 1.3 billion.

But combined African economies account for less than 3% of global GDP.  This fact alone signalled that the focus of this session of the world’s richest nations would be different.

Prime Minister Modi reinforced this strategic shift of focus by succeeding diplomatically in producing a surprising consensus on a 37-page summit declaration listing areas of importance to African and other developing countries.

This essay argues that topics covered in the comprehensive declaration should become performance benchmarks to assess the performance of African governments.

Equally important, is whether the major G21 powers, notably India, China, EU and the US, back their promises of assistance and cooperation to meet the needs of deserving AU members. How the G21 came to be is fraught, inspiring, and with previous successful cooperation. Importantly, the declaration was endorsed unanimously by all G21 members, without reservations.

Three times seven = G21

The Group of 7 — G7 — and the G20 were both forged in moments of global financial crises. 

The first was in 1975 when the Asian financial crisis threatened to spread and in 2008 when fears that the US bank failures could escalate globally. The first added Japan to the Atlantic community of industrial democracies. The second added the Big Emerging Markets, including what later became the five BRICS nations.

The G21, by contrast, was led by India’s prime minister. In an era of chronic global problems, the G21 aspires to promote closer and more substantial cooperation between the larger and more wealthy nations and those more vulnerable and less able to overcome an array of new global challenges, such as climate change, across the Global South, exemplified by their sole new member, the African Union.

G21 benchmarks

The unanimous declaration issued by the summit on 9 September includes 10 sections. Most have several subsections, but several are very brief. The focus throughout, by the expressed desire of host country India, deals with the needs and aspirations of poorer countries in the Global South. 

Together they form a coherent series of urgent benchmarks for greater and more helpful North-South cooperation for the sake of our common humanity.  

The 10 sections include:

  1. Strong, sustainable, balanced, and inclusive growth;
  2. Accelerating progress on sustainable development goals (SDGS);
  3. Green development pact for a sustainable future;
  4. Multilateral institutions for the 21st century;
  5. Technological transformation and digital public infrastructure;
  6. International taxation;
  7. Gender equality and empowering all women and girls;
  8. Financial sector issues;
  9. Countering terrorism and money laundering; and
  10. Creating a more inclusive world.

None are new or protected from corruption, mismanagement, demagogy, or errors of judgment at any stage of design and implementation. They serve, however, as an authoritative framework for scholarly and scientific assessments, local, national, and international debates, and above all to assess performance, unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral.

Prior to the summit, more than 200 meetings of senior financial and political officials met to build consensus on dealing with each of the declaration’s sections. The results of these exchanges are contained in over 100 reports that are listed in the appendix of the final summit declaration.

Cooperation without intimidation

The G21 is one of many informal multilateral bodies that emerged amid crises of varying kinds, and then disappear or are reconfigured to meet new challenges. The 2023 G21 summit may well be remembered for its commitment to bridge a perilous North–South divide in the aftermath of a global pandemic and amid a growing list of common threats and regional or subnational wars and deadly conflict.

The promise of this summit should be to test the consensus evident in its declaration of needs, challenges, and aspirations. By virtue of adding the African Union, that region is an obvious testing zone. 

Can the inspired and inspiring commitments to consensual democratic processes of democratic integration, nationally, regionally, and continental that are enshrined in African constitutions and multilateral organisations be sustained and overcome endemic problems of inequality, injustice, and poverty? 

Will major outside powers learn to avoid seeking unilateral advantage in Africa and can African agency be expressed collectively for the sake of shared gains and enhanced confidence in expanding cooperation?

The world was reminded of the risks of alleged intimidation by powerful neighbours in other regions when US President Joe Biden visited Vietnam en route home from India to sign a strategic agreement of cooperation. Vietnam already has similar agreements with China, Russia, India, and South Korea. Hanoi presumably concluded that another with a former enemy and invader could now be added insurance of its national self-determination.

The African Union, with 55 sovereign members mostly demarcated by imperial bargains among distant European imperialists with little regard for the interests of perhaps 3,000 indigenous, linguistically distinct ethnic groups, could today become the proving ground for new forms and means of cooperation. 

While relations with former colonial powers have been generally cordial, the new interest of India, China, Russia, Brazil and others in Africa is a welcome development. The AU joining the G20 may one day be regarded as a turning point toward more productive global cooperation and peaceful integration. DM


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