By Thomas Pogge – Director of the Global Justice Program, Yale University
Founded in 1999, the G20 is a self constituted elite group of powerful governments meant to set directions for the structuring and maintenance of the world economy. Its founding members are the world’s mightiest economies. Chaired by India in 2023 and holding its summit in New Delhi, the G20 resolved — a historical first — to admit a new permanent member: the African Union.
The AU’s inclusion seemed unfitting in earlier years because the aggregate GDP of all 55 AU members amounts to no more than that of the UK and because South Africa’s inclusion as the weakest G20 member already secured a token presence for the continent. The late invitation to the AU reflects the ascendancy of another conception of importance: the AU represents nearly 1.5 billion people, 18% of humanity; and it represents nearly 40% of the world’s undernourished and food insecure people — of those whom the world economy is failing most dramatically. Eighty in the European Union, life expectancy is only 60 in sub-Saharan Africa.
The real work begins now. G20 membership is an opportunity for Africa and the AU — realized only insofar as Africa can overcome its key weakness of disunity and present the thoughts, needs, and interests of Africans with a strong united voice. G20 membership provides a powerful incentive: if it can transform itself, the AU can, in alliance with other Southern countries, reshape the global order toward justice.
A first task is that of selecting and developing some key ideas that the AU might set forth as demands or proposals that Africans can rally around, and that the AU can vigorously advance in the G20 and other international forums in morally compelling terms. Ideally something new, distinctive, memorable, and winnable — something that can refresh the newly gained momentum with real tangible results for African populations.
In 2015, the world’s governments announced their principal Sustainable Development Goals #1: “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and #2: “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition.”
Then, 545 million Africans were recorded as food insecure. Since then, this official figure has risen every single year, reaching 868 million in 2022, a 59% increase. If this trend persists, more than a billion Africans will be food insecure in 2030 rather than zero as solemnly promised.
What might the enlarged G20 do to reverse this abysmal trend? One great headwind against Africa is the massive drain through illicit financial flows facilitated by a vast global network of tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions, letterbox companies, fake trusts, and anonymous accounts, operated by an army of shady lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, and financial advisors. Partly exposed through various whistleblower data releases, this sophisticated network is essential for kleptocrats looting their country’s treasuries and often used for corrupting public officials. Multinational corporations (MNCs) routinely use it to shift their profits out of Africa through fictitious or mispriced transactions with affiliates located in low tax or no tax jurisdictions. Such practices deprive Africans of a fair return for their natural resource exports and stifle the development of African firms forced to compete against tax avoiding MNCs. The global haven industry massively aggravates national and global inequalities and greatly impedes progress in the less developed countries by enabling multinational corporations, autocrats, corrupt officials, millionaires, and criminals to drain them of capital and revenues.
Experts have clear ideas for curtailing these abuses, and the OECD has put itself in charge of achieving appropriate reforms. But the wealthy states have been dragging their feet. Though they too lose revenues to corporate and individual tax abuse, they also benefit from the enhanced profits of their MNCs and from invisible pathways for bribing and blackmailing officials in the global South. With forceful AU participation, the G20 could bring new life into ongoing efforts to reform the netherworld of offshore finance.
Africa’s development is stymied also by patents, whose exclusivity features enable patentees to collect monopoly rents from users of innovative technologies and to deny access to those who cannot pay. Millions have died because they could not afford patented medicines that generic manufacturers would be willing and able to supply at very low prices. Millions are dying from air pollution and millions will die from the effects of global heating because the uptake of green technologies is severely impeded by monopoly rents (and by $7 trillion in annual subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption).
To be sure, innovations should be rewarded to incentivize R&D investments. But such rewards need not take the form of patents. We should institute incentives that also reward benefits to poor people as well as indirect benefits that go beyond the buyers and users of an innovation.
Such incentives might be provided through publicly funded sector specific impact funds that would enable innovators to get rewarded according to the social benefit achieved with their innovation made available at a non profit price. This substitution of impact rewards for patents should be confined to domains where the exclusion of poor people or the disregard of third party benefits really matters morally. Focused on Africa, the Ubuntu Health Impact Fund proposed within the T20/G20 process is a plausible first step, involving at cost provision throughout Africa of important medicines newly manufactured in Africa.
Whether these ideas or others are the best for the AU to advance is for Africans to decide. The crucial point is: if the AU can transform itself into a critical discussion forum and launch pad for strong global reform ideas of special relevance to Africa, it will be able to demand and achieve justice for Africans like no one else can. This opportunity comes with a great responsibility. Foreign scholars, practitioners, politicians, and citizens can and should lend support. But Africans must lead this effort to end exploitation of Africans through odious debts, kleptocrats, illicit capital outflows, tax avoidance, arms sales, brain drain, patent monopoly rents, uncompensated ecological destruction, and inequitable natural resource sales. Far too long have Africa’s impoverished been struggling, and waiting, for basic justice!
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023. Urbanization, Agrifood Systems Transformation and Healthy Diets across the Rural–Urban Continuum (Rome: FAO, 2023), pp. 10 and 21. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc3017en. https://www.ined.fr/en/everything_about_population/data/europe-developed-countries/life-expectancy/.
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023. Urbanization, Agrifood Systems Transformation and Healthy Diets across the Rural–Urban Continuum (Rome: FAO, 2023), p. 21. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc3017en.
For a detailed statement of this proposal for the pharmaceutical and green-technology sectors, see respectively my “Just Rules for Innovative Pharmaceuticals,” Philosophies 7:4 (2022), pp. 79–95, and “An Ecological Impact Fund” in Green and Low-Carbon Economy 1:1 (2023), pp. 15–21. https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-ubuntu-health-impact-fund/