The G20 and Beyond: From New Delhi to Rio

Passing the torch: Brazilian President Lula da Silva presents a tree sapling to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to symbolise the transfer of the G20 presidency. Image: Brazil Government / Alamy

At the recent G20 Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally extended an offer of membership to the African Union, making it the group’s 21st member. To draw any conclusions on the utility of the offer, one must first have a view on the state of the G20, the African Union and multilateralism generally.

In September 2023, at the 18th G20 Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the African Union (AU) had joined as the group’s 21st member. The move was anticipated and supported by states including Germany, China, the UK and the US. Views differ on the significance of the move, as they do on the significance of the G20.

The G20 (Group of 20) was set up in 1999 in the wake of global financial crises in the late 90s. With a rotating chairmanship, it has convened finance ministers and leaders from 19 countries as well as the EU annually. Others like the World Bank, European Central Bank and IMF commonly attend as guests.

On paper, the body has real clout. It is estimated to bring together economies accounting for the vast majority of global economic output and trade, plus around two-thirds of the global population. Many component members certainly have power and influence. But enthusiastic supporters of the G20 grouping are in short supply. Globally, many are dissatisfied either with the workings, membership or outputs of the group.

For starters, there are the outputs. Declarations – the main product of G20 meetings – are long, sleep-inducing and increasingly smack of mission creep too. For example, in addition to core questions around the global economy, this year’s declaration touches on gender inclusion, the digital economy, food security, women’s empowerment, debt, plastic pollution, education and much more.

In some areas there were discernible commitments, such as on climate financing or debt. A tripling of renewable energy capacity globally by 2030 was promised, as was a ‘phasing down’ of the use of coal. Support for ‘bigger, better, more effective development banks’ was also referenced. But as is often the case, most commitments lack detail. And history shows that implementation can be patchy – with no mechanism to track or support implementation of agreements, the body can be long on words but short on action. Lacking a permanent secretariat, the G20 is more an annual summit than a fully-fledged intergovernmental organisation.

Still an Exclusive Club?

G20 meetings are also often met with protests. Demands range from greater urgency on climate and environment matters, to global economic justice and inevitably, questions of membership. The body’s lopsided membership has been a thorn in the side of smaller states around the world, developed and developing alike. Vociferous champions of the UN and multilateralism are piqued by its mere existence. In 2010, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre cited the G20 as ‘one of the greatest setbacks since World War II’, given that it excluded so many. From this perspective, rather than work with and – if necessary – reform post-war institutions such as the UN or the IMF, powerful countries opted to set up an exclusive club, one whose key decisions happen behind closed doors.

The planned accession of African countries to the BRICS grouping might in time prove as meaningful as the African Union joining the G20, if not more so

The long-standing inclusion of South Africa in the group has done little to soften such views. It seems unlikely that AU membership, via the AU’s chair, will do so either. The G20 is somewhat more representative in global terms than the G7 – another target for criticism – but that is not saying much. After all, there are numerous other forums that on paper address all the issues the G20 grapples with, not least the UN. This is perhaps what lies at the root of the frustration.

Anyone for Multilateral Reform?

While some hailed the admission of the AU to the G20 as progress, there are many that see it as a diversion. The linked questions of UN reform – especially expansion of the UN Security Council (UNSC) – and of developing world voice and voting rights within global financial institutions are arguably where the real focus should be. Yet despite some lip service and numerous proposals, no real headway has been made on either question for years. The fact that major reforms to global financial institutions remain elusive despite some laudable reform ideas arising from G20 discussions underscores the criticisms of the group.

The September 2023 G20 meeting was swiftly followed by an extraordinary UN General Assembly (UNGA) meeting, held as always in New York. The tone, topics and most of all, the participation underscored the continuing problem. To his credit, US President Joe Biden attended the UNGA while leaders of the UNSC’s other permanent members did not, and made statements in favour of multilateralism. But on major issues from Syria to Ukraine, the UNSC has been at loggerheads for years. And interestingly, just prior to the UNGA meeting, the long-standing ‘Group of 77’ that brings southern and developing countries together met separately. The G77 is not just another mini-lateral grouping or regional bloc akin to the G7 or G20. In some ways, like the UNGA, it is a good bell-weather of global opinion. African representation at the UNGA was notable, with around 40 leaders attending. And a restructuring of not just the financial system but the wider global decision-making architecture was the key agenda item.

African Momentum

Like the UN, the G20 has recently struggled to bridge divides between its larger members – principally Russia, China and the US. Issues like energy and climate have been divisive. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the 2022 G20 Summit in Indonesia, for example. A key point of contention this year was language around Ukraine. Apparently, declaration clauses explicitly condemning the Russian invasion that were suggested by the Europeans had to be removed in favour of general language on the use of force due to Chinese objections. Prior muscle-flexing by some of the G20’s BRICS members in their August 2023 meeting should probably have served as notice on this point. Indeed, the planned accession of African countries to the BRICS grouping might in time prove as meaningful as the AU joining the G20, if not more so.

Multilateral forums including the recent UN General Assembly have been key to Lula’s efforts as he tries to restore Brazilian diplomacy from the little interest his predecessor showed in these gatherings

A key ingredient here will be the functionality of the AU itself. In some respects, the AU’s chair, rotating annually, makes it ill-placed to front a coherent African position. It remains to be seen how the AU will perform at the G20, given the power imbalance at play. Even beyond the chair’s position, the AU can be thinly staffed, fraught with tensions and bureaucratic. The institution will probably struggle to voice coherent positions on many issues that the G20 covers. But we will discover soon enough whether the new AU seat translates into more political influence for the continent. If there is progress in the near future on the tricky issues – climate reparations, the energy transition, international financial institution voting rights and UN voice – then the 2023 decision on AU membership will legitimately be seen as having advanced African and developing world interests.

Summit 2024: See You in Rio

The 2024 G20 Summit will take place in July in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian President Lula da Silva is expected to cast himself as a leader of the Global South who can speak to all parties in a fragmented world. Multilateral forums including the recent UNGA have been key to Lula’s efforts as he tries to restore Brazilian diplomacy from the little interest his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro showed in these gatherings. But much like his African counterparts, Lula has a credibility problem and needs to prove that he is not just about words, but action.

Apart from visiting over 20 countries since returning to the presidency in January, the left-wing former union leader has sought to exert influence on a range on topics, from the Russia–Ukraine War to environmental policies. ‘As I never tire of saying, Brazil is back. Our country is back to give our due contribution to face the world’s primary challenges’, Lula said in his address to the UNGA.

The next G20 Summit could nonetheless put Lula’s ability to shine on global governance issues in doubt. He will have to show the world that he can tackle domestic problems such as inequality, insecurity and a struggling economy. His elbow-to-elbow race with India to assert leadership of the Global South might see the Brazilian demonstrating his commitment on issues that matter at home and abroad, like the need for a green transition (the UN climate conference will likely be in Brazil in 2025). But there is also trouble on the horizon. Lula has confirmed that Putin will be invited to Rio de Janeiro and will not be arrested if he steps onto Brazilian soil, despite Brazil being a signatory of the Rome Statute.

A revamped and BRICS-led G20 meeting next year could also bring surprises. Non-Western narratives could become louder and clearer on issues such as tackling inequality, climate change, and demanding that rich countries make contributions to the developing world. Apart from those that take place at the G7 among like-minded friends, Washington and Western Europe have not invested much in these conversations. It may be time for a change.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.


Simon Rynn

Senior Research Fellow, African Security

International Security

View profile

Dr Carlos Solar

Senior Research Fellow, Latin American Security

International Security

View profile


Explore our related content