09/07/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2013

G20 Lays Out Plan that Could Help the World's Poor - If Leaders Step Up

While all eyes watched the G20 summit on Thursday and Friday to see what agreement - if any - could be reached on the crisis in Syria, the G20's Development Working Group released a paper that outlines the group's focus for the next three years. While less flashy than brewing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, the plans laid out in this document will shape how G20 countries approach development for the next three years. These plans have broader implications than the mild nine-page document might suggest.

The G20's focus in 2013-2014 will continue to include food security for the poorest families, providing financial services to rural poor who lack access to banks, and reducing the cost to immigrants sending remittances home to their families.

These areas have some flexibility built in, as the paper recognizes that future G20 presidents will need to be able to respond to evolving circumstances. It will be important, for example, to integrate the post-2015 development agenda with the G20's development priorities so as not to have competing global frameworks for development. Yet, while some degree of flexibility is necessary, I would urge G20 leaders not to depart too far from the framework. Without continuity between G20 presidencies, any real progress on G20 initiatives will be impossible.

There are several key elements that make this paper - the St. Petersburg Development Outlook - a good road map for the G20's development agenda:

  1. The G20 has a long history of working with the business and labor communities, so it is appropriate that the G20 is now recognizing the importance of strengthening dialogue with civil society as well.
  2. The G20's recognition of the importance of smallholder farmers - who produce more than half of the world's food supply - is welcomed, as are commitments to establish food reserves and ensure access to humanitarian food supplies. In addition to this, the G20 countries will review opportunities in farming in low-income countries to promote economic growth and job creation. They will continue to examine agricultural risk management and support the scaling up of nutrition.
  3. The promotion of decent jobs and comprehensive rural development will promote increased economic equity.
  4. Lastly, G20 leaders commit to a "comprehensive accountability report" every three years. The first of these was released last week - a major improvement in G20 accountability - which InterAction has called for since 2009. However, the quality of future reports will depend on the host country, which is not yet known for 2016.

These are good commitments. It now falls on G20 leadership to ensure they are implemented.

As a global body for international economic cooperation, the G20 is a key player in shaping policies aimed at fostering growth. This focus has tremendous potential to help the world's poor. The Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI), a G20 initiative, has increased the availability of banking and other financial services to the rural poor. In a recent report, the GPFI has identified how the G20 can increase international cooperation in this vital, but oft overlooked area. Unfortunately some of the new actions under financial inclusion are weak. G20 leaders only commit to explore options to strengthen financial inclusion and to consider mechanisms to reduce transfer costs. Commitments to implement these needed reforms are still needed from the G20.

The G20's new Development Outlook is a positive step forward. The authors narrowed the focus of the Development Working Group's agenda and prioritized issues that matter to low-income countries. They also outlined action steps that actually have a good chance of getting done. Yet while this document provides a good road map, it is now time for the G20 countries to walk down the path. The words on the pages are only as good as the actions the G20 takes.