The G20 is an opportunity for many of the world’s leaders to have informal one-on-ones: between US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, between Trump and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the occasion to visit Israel on his way to Hamburg. There will also be many opportunities to discuss vital issues, such as North Korea, Syria and Ukraine.
When it was created, the G20 was not meant to be a political talking shop. Initially, it was a gathering of finance ministers. But that changed when the financial crisis hit the world’s markets.
“Since 2008 the leaders have been meeting annually, as well as [holding] different ministerial meeting throughout the year,” says Sophie Barnett, a researcher of the G7-G20 Research Group of the University of Toronto. “It originally started with the goal of financial stabilisation and making globalisation work for all, it has increasingly come to include political and security issues, just as by the G8 counterparts.”
Behind closed doors the leaders will have a chance to discuss economic issues, but it remains to be seen if a final statement will live up to what some of the G20’s avid observers want.
“In order to restore confidence in the global economy we need a pay rise,” says Shannon Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.
“We need to ensure rights and freedoms and a minimum living wage plus collective bargaining that will do something about historic levels of inequality and give people hope.
“Corporations must be held to account, they can no longer simply take the wage shift that comes from low wages, the oppression and violation of rights in terms of insecure and non-paid work and pretend that this is a model of globalisation people will support. So if we want to secure a global economy then the future for workers must be secured as well.”
Africa a blank
A look at the world map shows that most continents are well-represented in the G20. But Africa is a big blank, apart from South Africa, a full G20 member.
What can Africa hope to get out of this meeting?
The G20 has invited the current head of the African Union, Guinea's President Alpha Condé, to attend and Senegal is present as a representative for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.
“One thing that Africa can still get, despite the lack of African countries in the G20 group, is the focus on the partnerships being the partnerships with Africa, and development being with Africa rather than for Africa,” says Barnett.
“And realising that for progress to be made it has to be partnership rather than the provision of aid from one to the other. And so, while they are not part of the G20, to talk about them, especially using “with” rather than “for” and seeing them as equals, I think that is really important and I do think that they will benefit from that language.”
Protests against 'faceless' globalisation
Meanwhile, the official venue of the G20 is locked off completely from the rest of Hamburg, there’s a massive police presence and civil society groups are organising actions, demonstrations and performances to protest against what they say is the impersonal, almost dictatorial, side of the G20, that for them represents faceless globalisation.
“In Hamburg, hundreds of people were clothed in clay,” says Sven Kämmerer, who is with the art collective Tausend Gestalten (1,000 Shapes) that organised the protest. “They marched through the city, slowly and without actually feeling anything or seeing anything and transformed and actually broke out of their clay shell. And for us this represents a society that is just moving forward towards a direction and no one feels included in the political process.
“For us this breaking out means that we can’t wait for any elite, to make changes for us, we have to do the changes ourselves."
The G20 ends on Saturday with a joint declaration.