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  • Svetlana Lukash, Department Head of the Russian Presidential Experts’ Directorate and Head of the Russian G8/G20 Sherpa Office

Svetlana Lukash: Civil 20 to Invigorate the G20 Summit

On June 13-14, 2013 for the first time in the G20 history, the Civil 20 Summit will be held in Moscow, ahead of the G20 Leaders' Summit. Svetlana Lukash, Department Head of the Russian Presidential Experts' Directorate and Head of the Russian G8/G20 Sherpa Office explained in an interview with the Agency for Social Information what is so unique about this event and what the Civil 20 is.

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Question: Svetlana, let's first sort out the terminology. You are supervising the Russian G8/G20 Sherpa Office. Who are the Sherpas? What is their role in the G20 Summit?

Svetlana Lukash: Sherpa is a personal representative of a head of state or government, who is responsible for contacts with the counterparts from other countries during the Summit preparations, for preparing the content for the Summit on behalf of their country, and participating on country's behalf in harmonizing the final documents. The name is derived from Nepal and India, that is how people serving as guides in the Himalayas are called. Thus, a Sherpa is a guide, and in diplomatic terms Sherpa is a personal representative of a head of state, either the President or the Prime Minister, his envoy and trustee.

In our internal G20 slang we have gone even further. Sherpas move around mountains on yaks. Therefore, assistants to the Sherpas - myself included - are called "yaks." Some of my colleagues even write "yak" as an official position on their business cards.

Sherpas and their staff were initially a rather closed community. Until just recently it wasn't habitual to discuss the summit agenda with the non-governmental sectors, such as business and civil society. One of the innovations introduced under the Russian Presidency is regular consultations and working meetings between the Civil 20 representatives (as well as the Business 20), the G20 Sherpas, and other government officials from the G20 countries.

If two years ago somebody had told me that the G20 would be so open that the Sherpas would be discussing in detail the recommendations suggested by the civil society, topic by topic, sitting with their representatives at the same table, frankly, I would have never believed it. But it is a fait accompli now.

Question: Please, tell us more about what the Civil 20 is as a mechanism? You have mentioned working groups and their regular meetings with the Sherpas. When were these groups formed and whose was the initiative, what is their working format?

Svetlana Lukash: As a structure, the Civil 20 has been established only this year. It was created at the initiative, first of all, of the Russian non-governmental organizations and their representative in the Global NGO Group, Alena Peryshkina, Director of AIDS Infoshare. They proposed the following mechanism of interaction between civil society and their governments. From the very beginning of the country's G20 presidency, civil society representatives begin discussing their concerns and make recommendations, for their position to be further conveyed to the G20 Leaders well in advance of the official G20 Summit. Thus, civil society's stances on various issues can be incorporated in the final documents of the G20.

These issues could be anything. However, we openly recommend the Civil 20 working groups to focus on the topics that are in line with the G20's official agenda. If, for example, the G20 is not planning to address political issues or regional conflicts, then civil society's stances on these issues, though they would be conveyed to the G20 Leaders, would not be reflected in the final documents.

The Civil 20 is one of the outreach dialogue tracks accompanying the official G20 process (i.e. parallel processes, reflecting the views of different groups of external stakeholders with respect to the G20's activities), such as the Business 20, Labour 20, or Youth 20. The final event of the civil track is its own - Civil 20 Summit, which will endorse the final recommendations for the G20 Leaders.

Preparations for the summit were organized in a systemic manner: once again, at Russia's initiative, the thematic working groups were formed around various topics, uniting the representatives of non-governmental organizations, academia, independent experts and concerned citizens from different countries. Each group has co-chairs, one of whom represents the Russian Federation as the presiding country.

Our first task as an Organizing Committee was to launch interaction between these working groups with other relevant thematic groups in the official track, the business track, and other tracks. This is the first time that civil society had such an opportunity. And, of course, the meetings with the G20 Sherpas, which I've already mentioned earlier, stand out in this row.

Working groups have already reached the stage of finalizing the recommendations that they will present at the Summit in June. That means, among other things, that we managed to offer and keep up to a really structured format of interaction between civil society and the G20.

Question: How did this interaction happen previously? The G20 is a relatively new format established in 2008. But even before that there were the G7 and the G8. Had there been any attempts to organize such a Civil 20 Summit? Or at least some way to systematically convey the views of civil society to the Leaders?

Svetlana Lukash: Indeed, the G20 in its current format of a forum bringing together heads of states and governments was established in 2008 in response to the global financial and economic crisis. Back then businesses and civil society were voicing their opinions about how to get out of the crisis. The first meeting of NGOs from the G20 countries was held in 2009 in London. But it was quite a spontaneous meeting, mostly involving organizations that were somehow tied to states within the G8 framework.

The biggest thing is that the crisis has made us look at global issues differently, including at the role of civil society and its impact on the global economy. Then there was a series of attempts to organize a meeting of NGOs representatives and the Sherpas, but quite often we weren't able to do this, and make such a meeting effective. Canada, Korea, France, and Mexico made their contributions to establishing the dialogue with civil society.

During the Korean presidency in 2010, a large-scale meeting of the civil society representatives was held on the sidelines of the Sherpas Meeting. Not all Sherpas participated in it, but it was there that NGOs working in Russia were, for the first time, able to share with their colleagues from other countries their experience of contributing to the Summit preparatory process. Indeed, the Russian Sherpa Office had already accrued the experience of interacting with several non-governmental organizations working in Russia, both Russian and international (WWF, Oxfam). In 2010, at the initiative of the Russian Sherpa Arkadiy Dvorkovich, the Russian NGO G8/G20 Working Group was created to prepare its recommendations for each Sherpas Meeting and present its views on the current G20 agenda. The presentation of this experience stirred genuine interest in Seoul, and a number of countries have decided to follow suit. But it was not until Russia's civil society proposed holding a Civil 20 Summit in the year of Russia's presidency that this activity did not get less spontaneous in nature.

For example, we knew that several organizations in a number of countries used to some recommendations, but we received them too late, after the Sherpas had already agreed on the final documents. We just did not have time to consider them or somehow react to them. Russia therefore proposed the civil summit format, which takes place two months before the G20 Leaders' Summit. Usually this very period is needed for the Sherpas to prepare and harmonize the final G20 documents.

Question: Ok, so the mechanism has been created. But to what extent we may consider it legitimate? Is it possible, in making recommendations, to take into account the views of at least a significant number of those who want to participate in the discussion? In other words, can we refer to the Civil 20 recommendations as the recommendations of civil society or individual working groups?

Svetlana Lukash: I think that we have done everything we can to engage most NGOs and other relevant stakeholders in this process.

First, at the initiative of the Russian NGOs, a website dedicated to the G8 and G20 issues was launched almost two years ago, which under the Russian Presidency has become the core mechanism of communication between the Russian and foreign NGOs regarding the G20 matters, and the main international information resource for civil society in this area. It is encouraging to know that g20civil.com was created by Russia.

Second, of the Russian NGOs led a broad discussion of the recommendations with civil society through an online crowdsourcing platform. This platform (Civil 20 - Dialogues) was launched in January 2013. This is also a unique tool for the G20. Dialogues allow anyone from anywhere in the world post their recommendations and comment on the others'. Each Civil 20 working group posted their issues and recommendations and received feedback.

At the beginning of 2013, a series of round tables were organized in the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, addressed primarily towards the Russian NGOs. Debates on the Civil 20 topics could have been joined by any interested party through the working groups or the interactive platform.

After the working groups had gathered opinions through the website, the interactive platform, and face to face meetings, they incorporated these suggestions into a set of recommendations for the G20 Leaders put it on ballot via the online platform. This helped determine which recommendations were supported by the majority of the global civil society.

Question: Svetlana, how would you assess the willingness of civil society in different countries to participate in the process of making recommendations for the G20 Leaders? And vice versa, are the G20 Sherpas prepared to cooperate with NGOs and consider their opinions?

Svetlana Lukash: At the very beginning of Russia's Presidency back in December 2012, a series of introductory events was held for businesses, civil society, and think tanks from the G20 member countries. Representatives of different countries and different outreach groups agreed on which topics they would like to focus in the year ahead and what recommendations they wanted to discuss.

Foreign NGOs were very actively involved in the work. In Russia, admittedly, the process is more complicated. But I think the problem isn't so much in the mechanism, but in the content. The Russian NGOs, for obvious reasons, are more focused on domestic issues and not all of them are well prepared to be engaged in the discussions on problems faced by the international community. Why even talk of Africa when there are so many burning issues in your own region? In addition, our non-governmental organizations are not quite experienced in cooperating with international NGOs and foreign counterparts, who are accustomed to thinking and acting more globally.

As for the Sherpas, they really have to be taught to have dialogue with civil society. Each successive presidency of the G20 has been gradually eliminating barriers to enter this exclusive club. Russia has thus gone further than anyone, and from the beginning of its presidency invited civil society, businesses, trade unions, and youth associations to attend the G20 Sherpas' meetings. In December 2012, at the initiative of the Russian NGOs, the University of Toronto jointly with the Higher School of Economics prepared a report assessing the implementation of the previously undertaken commitments. This is a unique work as the G20 has never before so extensively assessed the fulfillment of those commitments. We thought it was worth considering an external assessment of the G20 activities from the very inception of the presidency program.

Sherpas met the report with mixed reactions, which is understandable: after all, countries were given evaluations of how well they were fulfilling their commitments, and no one likes being evaluated. But in the end, even those countries which initially opposed our initiatives, acknowledged the demand for an evaluation of this kind benefits from discussing such issues with civil society.

In February and March, we invited business community, labour unions and civil society to the G20 working group meetings. And in May, at the third G20 Sherpas' meeting, a series of discussions were held on each of the topics with the representatives of the Business 20 and the Civil 20.

I can't call it an easy experience, although interest from the Sherpas was high. Not all suggestions received Sherpas' favorable response (for example, a proposal from environmentalists to abandon nuclear power). But there were suggestions from civil society that clearly received support, like several ideas on enhancing food security and financial education.

The bottom line is that there is clear interest and readiness to interact. I can testify that when the representatives of the Civil 20 left the meeting, the Sherpas continued actively discussing their recommendations.

Question: So the official G20, in principle, is ready for open communication with civil society?

Svetlana Lukash: Absolutely. Neither country has any doubts that there is a definite need to consult with civil society, especially on such issues as food security, financial education, and the formation of the post-2015 development agenda. These are the key issues for the whole society, so it is important to consider a broad range of opinions.

The Civil 20 has another important function in terms of its influence on the formal process, which is "renewal." The G20, in a sense, is stewing in its own juice, with its solutions becoming more and more technically complex and less understandable for the public year after year. That is why interaction with businesses, youth, and civil society is among each presidency's priorities. This will allow governments take into account the interests of wider communities, to hear their real problems, to get to know fresh ideas and opinions, and to assess the effectiveness of the solutions adopted by the G20.

Question: Let us take the best-case scenario and imagine that recommendations from civil society, including the Russian NGOs, are incorporated in the final documents of the G20 Summit. What's next? How will the terms of these documents affect the situation in individual countries, including in Russia?

Svetlana Lukash: The ultimate goal of all the G20 decisions is improving people's well-being and living standards. For example, solutions in the field of financial regulation that were adopted at the first summit were critically needed to overcome the financial crisis of 2008 and its consequences. Control over the financial institutions was significantly increased and a number of the European Union members introduced a tax on financial transactions. Although the post-effects of the crisis have yet to be overcome, and the world still cannot find itself on the path towards sustainable growth, it would be fair to say that owing to the work of the G20, the situation of 2008-2009 will not happen again for sure.

Or take a topic that civil society is at all times concerned about - food security. The G20 is trying to find mechanisms to fight hunger, improve agricultural productivity and sustainability of agricultural crops, to reduce the volatility of food prices at the world food markets. And this will directly affect consumers' market basket in different countries because the issues of affordable and safe food are of interest for the most of world, both the developing and the developed countries.

Much attention is paid by the G20 and the Russian Presidency to the issue of financial inclusion. It is all about improving financial education and expanding access to the financial products and services, ensuring the availability of loans to households and small businesses, and defending consumers' rights in this area. This is particularly relevant for the poorest countries, where, for example, the survival of a woman's family often depends on her ability to come in for a consumer credit. Even here in Russia just a few years ago, as we can recall, our people, including you and me, had to put up with the fact that banks imposed predatory loan terms, simply because no one had explained to us the rules of the game or the possible pitfalls.

Many decisions adopted by the G20 have a delayed effect, which often can be not quite visibly observed straightaway in terms of its impact on the world market or people's quality of life. But these decisions provide the basis for a long-term development strategy and set the stage for the future. That is why they should be clear and transparent and consider the views of all interested parties. Therefore, we are sincerely committed to ensuring that the recommendations of the Civil 20 contributed to more efficient decision-making within the G20 framework.