G20 Conversation: India has put Sustainable Infrastructure on G20 Agenda

In this conversation with Manish Chand, CEO & Editor-in-Chief,   India and The World,  and Director, Centre for Global India Insights, a think tank focused on global affairs, Nicolas J.A. Buchoud, the co-chair of the T20 India TF3 and special advisor to the Indian National Institute for Urban Affairs (NIUA) for the U20, highlights the need for promoting sustainable infrastructure in the Global South, and underlines that India will have a pivotal role to play in this process.
(Excerpts from the interview)

Q) In what ways have India’s G20 presidency promoted investment in sustainable infrastructure in the Global South?

A) The issue of ‘infrastructure investments in the Global South’ has been on the table of the G20 in the past years, along with that of ‘de-risking investments.’ Yet not much progress has been made as emerging and lower-income countries where new infrastructure investments would be needed, such as in the energy and mobility sectors are also the ones with more limited capabilities to borrow money on global capital markets. Furthermore, many countries of the designated Global South have suffered more than their counterparts from the G7 from the macro-economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some tools have been set up to try overcome the ‘risk’ gridlock, such as the Global Infrastructure Facility by the World Bank. A Global Infrastructure Hub as initiated by the G20 Australia in 2014 to promote the role of infrastructure investments in supporting growth. However, such initiatives have fallen short of helping countries and cities the most in need in capital.

During the G20 Indonesia last year, we addressed the issue of ‘de-risking’ in a different way, combining the expertise of T20 infrastructure investment and financing taskforce, with that of the group of businesses (B20), the group of cities (U20), in close coordination with the G20 Finance Track chaired by the Indonesian Finance Ministry. This followed the innovative process initiated during the G20 Italy in 2021 and the joint declaration of the T20, B20 and G20 group of long term investors (D20).

This year, the G20 presidency of India has brought up the issue of infrastructure investment in the Global South to yet another level, echoed in the T20 by the large taskforce devoted to LiFE, resilience, ethics and values. In the first days of the G20 presidency, in January 2023, the Prime Minister of India convened the Voice of Global South gathering and the T20 organized a large meeting in Bhopal on LiFE. Ahead of the G20 Leaders’ Summit in September, the BRICS Summit in South Africa focused the global attention whereas Brazil and South Africa will be chairing the G20 in 2024-25.

The Global South is now affirming its leadership role, including in setting up future financial norms and rules to a much greater extent. This may be the most significant transformation of the global financial architecture since the end of the 1980’s and perhaps the 1940’s, with expected manyfold impacts, including in the delivery of sustainable physical, social and digital infrastructure investments.

Q) How can G20 India contribute to reduce significantly the infrastructure finance gap while promoting eco-friendly development?

A) I believe that the infrastructure investment legacy of the G20 India will have an impact on sustainable urbanization pathways in the world, especially in emerging and in lower-income countries. About a decade ago, India launched a 100 smart cities program. I remember one roadshow taking place in Berlin for several days, where Western engineering companies and advisory firms would largely communicate about their know-how and skills. Things are quite different in the context of 2023 India where national standards tend to prevail over the copy-paste of international or Western processes.

The summit of the Urban20, the engagement group of cities of the G20 hosted in Ahmedabad in July 2023 was another illustration of the current transformation of the making of urban India, reflected in the final Communiqué endorsed not only by major cities across the G20 countries but also by over 50 Indian cities.

On a personal note, I regret that the dialogue about urban issues such as in the T20, in the U20 and in the ministerial Infrastructure Working Group (IWG) have remained somewhat limited. The regret is all the higher as urbanization was the major theme of the G20 IWG. I hope that the G20 Brazil will be the occasion to cross the lines between the multiple achievements and breakthroughs of the G20 India and to deepen a quality dialogue between governments, the civil society, the private sector, the academics and think-tanks about the future of urbanisation with a renewed Global South focus.

Q) The issue of green finance has been exhaustively discussed during the past months of the G20 India, including in the T20. How to fast-track the delivery of green finance? What are your recommendations?

A) The issue of green finance goes hand in hand with improving the quality and the quantity of infrastructure stock. The greening of infrastructure investments without any improvement of quality public services available to everyone is a societal dead-end. When we created the Grand Paris Alliance for Metropolitan Investments in 2011, we wanted to explore and understand how to maximize the socio-economic and environment spill overs of large-scale infrastructure projects such as the €40 billion Grand Paris Express new metro in the Greater Paris area.

In the past decade, we have organized over a dozen of international fora and dozens of working meetings with a very wide range of public, private, academic and social stakeholders, from multilateral public and global private banking institutions to local and international philanthropies and charities, research groups, multinational companies and highly specialized MSMEs, and so on.

There is a lot of inequity in current ways to promote ESG, starting with the very different capability of cities or metropolitan governments across the global to raise capital and borrow money on global markets. ESG standards are very market oriented but we can see that markets have largely failed at delivering the resources, especially for large scale infrastructure investments, where they are needed the most. The way the T20 India has included the issues of green finance in a larger scope including ethics and values is very interesting and innovative, as was reflected by the Bhopal Declaration of January 2023 calling for the G20 to focus on inclusive development.

To summarize, we have entered into much necessary but also highly volatile times of deep political and financial transformations, well reflected by the G20. The G20 can be the place to build new forms of synthesis between multiple ways to look into growth and sustainability, be it from the Global South, the G7, the BRICS…having in mind that for many, the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic means high levels of inequalities within and among nations, and within nations, among cities and neighbourhoods.

Q) I would like to bring in another perspective, that is the idea of values in the G20 and multilateralism. Geopolitical transactions can be ruthlessly brutal, therefore what do you think about the role of values in driving the G20 agenda?

A) I was a bit dubious about introducing the concept of values in discussions about green finance, climate finance, sustainable infrastructure finance… Indeed, what happens, if you do not share the same sets of values as your neighbour? Last year we conducted a large research on major infrastructure investments frameworks across the globe, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Europe’s Global Gateways, the G7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investments (PGII), etc…all claiming to be the right fit, but what about the impacts on people’s lives, or on low carbon trajectories? We need to reintroduce health, wellbeing, social welfare, at the heart of global public policies.

I remember that before the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008-9, the designated ‘beyond Gross Domestic Product (GDP)’ agenda was gaining momentum. A few years later in 2015, the former chief statistician of OECD E. Giovannini wrote that, ahead of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nation, ‘the beyond GDP agenda made a lot of progress, especially from a statistical point of view.’ I am afraid that much of such progress was erased by the Covid-19 pandemic, while the 2030 Agenda of the United-Nations is suffering from serious backlash. For instance, a new report of the Asian Development Bank from the summer 2023 show that well over 100 million people have fallen into poverty in developing Asia in the past couple of years. Reports about hunger, education, gender equality, and in a more general way, human capital losses triggered by the pandemic, all illustrate a world in dire need of justice, fairness and equity. This goes without even mentioning issues such as corruption, peace and security.

Q) When we talk about G20, are there any shared values or ethical values beyond shared interests? Is talking about values in the context of the G20 too idealistic or unrealistic?

A) The G20 as we know it is not an institution or a formal organisation, but a forum of country leaders whose first goal was to solve the global financial crisis that stemmed from the subprime banking disaster in the United-States. T

The G20 has adopted a development roadmap only in 2010 at the Seoul Summit and back then, there were fierce debates about the so-called ‘Seoul consensus’ which was touted as focusing too much on financial issues as the expanse of social inclusion. The decline of investments in social infrastructure has been recurrent throughout the past decade, even in the context of the European Union, which the G20 has never addressed as a priority, even after the launch of the (sustainable) development working group (DWG) during the G20 China presidency on 2016. Similarly, the G20 has been rather slow in assessing the negative spill-over of massive biodiversity losses across the globe.

However, as Italy was chairing the G20 in 2021 and co-chairing the COP26 in Glasgow that same year, concepts such as ‘just energy transition partnerships’ (JETP) emerged and have proven to be an interesting driver for low carbon development pathways in a number of major emerging countries, such as Indonesia, South Africa, or Vietnam, to quote a few. The linkage between G20 talks and COP talks, be it about biodiversity or climate is critical. The role of engagement groups such as think-tanks is also key, even if not all of their recommendations make their way to the final Leader’s Declaration. For instance, we have worked intensively in the context of the T20 to promote innovative ideas regarding biodiversity finance and accumulated valuable knowledge in that matter since the G20 Japan in 2019.

The G20 is never as efficient as when it can serve the implementation of wider multilateral agendas. That being said, I also believe that very critical issues such as inequalities have not been addressed at scale in the past decade.

Q) India has coined the motto, Vasudaiva Kutumbakam or, One Family One Earth One Future as a driver for its G20 presidency and with a view on empowering the Global South. How do you view the long term impacts of the G20 India on issues such as social justice?

A) The ‘One Earth, One family, One planet’ approach is both a very obvious and subtle way to assess that other sets of values are possible at the global level, beyond individualistic, CO2 emitting lifestyles. The issue of lifestyles, including sustainable consumption AND production, has nurtured the G20 India even before it started, when India’s Prime Minister officially initiated the Mission LiFE campaign in 2022 with the Secretary General of the United-Nations to take the economy from ‘mindless consumption’ to ‘mindful utilization.’

We have extensively discussed about the issue in the context of the T20 corresponding ‘LiFE, resilience, ethics and values taskforce’, which is perhaps the largest and maybe the most ambitious ever taskforce in all of the T20 history. I am very happy that the director general of RIS prof. Sachin Chaturvedi has managed to convince a global publishing house to edit a full volume on our LiFE discussions in the G20 and I hope that the LiFE summit planned initially ahead of the G20 leaders meeting will take place before the end of 2023.

For the LiFE concept to become a new global standard and the G20 India motto to live beyond the current presidency, gently breaking the forum’s routine will not be enough. The LiFE summit will be a critical moment to assess the outcomes of the LiFE Mission so far, to understand how much of it has progressed during the G20, in which specific fields, and to project it beyond 2023. We have engaged in discussions with Brazilian think-tanks counterparts since last spring and as they are preparing for the T20 / G20 Brazil. At this moment, the One Family, One Earth, One Future motto alongside the LiFE Economy belong very much to India. It will take more time for them to become more universal.

Q) How does India’s voluntary Global South agenda resonates in Europe or at G7 level? As you have also been actively involved in the G7 Japan, what are your impressions?

A) I was engaged both in the T20/G20 India and T7/G7 Japan in 2023. As we were preparing for this year’s India and Japan G20 and G7 presidencies last year, the idea of a systematic, joint T7/T20 dialogue emerged strongly. The dean and CEO of the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI), T.Sonobe understood very early the potential benefits of ‘bridging the G7 and G20’, which is well reflected in the T7 final communiqué which was handed over to the Prime Minister of Japan. We organised in March the first ever T7/T20 leaders joint seminar with the Rockefeller Foundation, and several other meetings, including at the T20 summit in Mysuru. [1] We are preparing a joint meeting between the T20 India and the T7 Japan on September 21 in New York at the occasion of the upcoming General Assembly of the United Nations and the Summit on the SDGs and devoted to support the 2030 Agenda. In that context, the voice of the BRICS and of the Global South will be critical.

As the BRICS strongly re-emerges on the global stage, it is no longer about the G7 and the G20, not to mention the perspective of the Africa Union to become a new member of the G20. Think tanks can play a very useful role in showcasing how such institutional transformations can play in favour of sustainable development.

(Nicolas J.A. Buchoud is the co-chair of the T20 India TF3 and special advisor to the Indian National Institute for Urban Affairs (NIUA) for the U20, advisor to the dean and CEO of ADBI for the T7 Japan (Tokyo), Fellow of the Global Solutions Imitative, Berlin and President of the Grand Paris Alliance for Metropolitan Development. He is a founding co-editor of the INTERSECTING global editorial project, which last volume, Resources for the Future, will be launched in the fall of 2023. Nicolas also chairs a local development and heritage preservation association in rural lower Normandy region in France.)
[1] Think7 and Think20 Leaders Launch a Shared Agenda For Global Cooperation, May 5, 2023, https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/news/think7-and-think20-leaders-launch-a-shared-agenda-for-global-cooperation/
Nicolas Buchoud

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India Writes Network
India Writes Network
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