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The only game in town?

Adrian Wyld/The Globe and Mail

Canada has another chance.

In June, when Canada played host to the leaders of the G20 in Toronto, along with the EU and remaining 18 member countries that constitute the group, it failed to seize an important opportunity. If the G20 ever hopes to play a key role in global governance, it needs a permanent home. A secretariat focused on the longer-term challenges to the global community would go some way in healing the growing divisions that emerged in Toronto between G20 members. Canada, one of the original founders of the G20 in 1999 when it was a group of finance ministers, is perfectly positioned to host the secretariat. More importantly, the world needs it to.

After the G20 proved its worth at summit meetings in Washington, London and Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2009 through timely decisions that prevented the financial crisis from turning into a global economic catastrophe, the group's momentum unfortunately seems to have stalled. The unity that characterized earlier meetings disappeared with the beginnings of economic recovery. By the time of the Toronto meeting, consensus on next steps had already faltered and division and dysfunction ruled the day. Indeed, signs of disarray between the Americans, Europeans and Asians were evident, on issues ranging from whether and how to pay down rising deficits resulting from fiscal stimulus, to whether or how to tax banks.

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As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist illustrated so compellingly in his latest book, Freefall, the global economy has just passed through a "near-death experience." Deep structural flaws in our prevailing economic model and in the net of societal values that the model helped nurture were exposed.

Then there is the other global catastrophe in the making: climate change. Irrefutable evidence continues to mount on the rapid warming of the planet and its devastating consequences for the poorest countries and people. Like the financial crisis, this is a man-made problem with known solutions - only if there is the political will to implement them.

Over the next decade or two, the G20 is likely to be "the only game in town" to effectively address these profound challenges. The G8 is a relic of the 20th century, representative only of the world's richest countries. As articulated in the North-South Institute's 2010 Canadian Development Report, the G20 offers governments the best institutional option for effective responses to global economic and environmental challenges. To be sure, 172 countries are excluded from the G20, in particular most of Africa. If the G20 is able to reach out systematically in its deliberations to these countries, one is effectively talking of a body overseeing 85 to 90 per cent of global GDP, with the vast majority of the planet's human population (including its poorest) and the bulk of man's carbon footprint on the planet.

In the absence of another major crisis, building consensus among G20 members will not be easy. So far, the G20 has operated under a short-term tactical horizon, going from one meeting to the next, with each meeting co-ordinated by the host country. A permanent secretariat would help the G20 to play a more effective role in global governance by allowing long-term, strategic thinking.

Hosting the secretariat in Canada makes eminent sense, both because of our recent history of prudent financial-sector management, and a respected legacy of support for international development. If Canada does not take the initiative, there are signs just this week that France will, on behalf of the European bloc. A European secretariat would have a number of disadvantages and would probably not succeed in facilitating consensus among G20 members. Canada does not carry any of the baggage of colonialism borne by European countries, nor does it have the burden of being a superpower like the United States. As the G8 slips into history, hosting the G20 secretariat would give Canada a perfect opportunity to exercise meaningful leadership globally.

It's not too late: Canada should offer to host the permanent secretariat at the next G20 meeting in Seoul, this November.

Joe Ingram is the incoming president of the North-South Institute. Roy Culpeper is its outgoing president.

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