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The World Is Undergoing “Significant Realignments”: Economist Jayati Ghosh on G20, India, China & More

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We get an update on the G20 summit, which welcomed the African Union as a permanent member and took place for the first time in India as the country faces criticism for bulldozing slums near the site of the meeting. “What we are seeing is a period of significant realignments,” says economics professor Jayati Ghosh, who critiques the meeting for a lack of action and largely performative events such as a negotiated joint statement which stopped short of condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. “This G20 has done nothing for the major problems of our time,” says Ghosh, who calls on the group of world leaders to act on climate change and wealth inequality. “The G20 is a collection of potentially very powerful governments — that don’t necessarily represent the interests of their own people, I might add — but nonetheless, this collection has not done very much over the last 12 to 13 years.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden has arrived back in the United States after attending the G20 summit in India and making a state visit to Vietnam. The G20 summit brought together leaders from many of the world’s largest economies, but there were two notable absences: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a key development, the African Union has been admitted to the G20 as a permanent member. The AU consists of 55 member states with a population of over 1.3 billion.

Much of the negotiations at the G20 centered on a joint statement that included a section on the war in Ukraine. The final statement made no reference to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Instead, the document stated, quote, “All states must refrain from the threat or use of force to seek territorial acquisition,” unquote.

Meanwhile, on the climate crisis, the G20 joint statement called for just a, quote, “phasedown” of coal instead of a phaseout, as many demanded. Other fossil fuels weren’t mentioned in the statement.

The G20 also ignored calls for nations to enact new taxes on the ultrarich.

On the sidelines of the G20, the United States, India, Saudi Arabia and the European Union announced plans for a major railway and port project to connect the Middle East with India. Many see the proposal as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The summit represented the first time that the G20 has met in India. Ahead of the gathering, India faced criticism for bulldozing slum areas in New Delhi, leaving many residents without a home. The G20 summit also occurred as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to be moving toward changing the name of India to Bharat, a Sanskrit term which is already India’s second official name but is not widely used internationally. Invitations to dinners during the G20 used the name Bharat instead of India.

To talk about all this and more, we’re joined by Jayati Ghosh, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, previously an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, where she taught for 35 years.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor. It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you talk about what you thought was the most significant outcome from the G20 and all the developments within it, in the negotiations?

JAYATI GHOSH: I think the basic lesson of this G20 meeting is that geopolitics is everything and that the leaders of the G20 are so intent on playing their particular geopolitical games right now that they really don’t care about what is required for the world as a whole. And that’s important, because, if you remember, G20 was actually set up because it was argued that the U.N. is too unwieldy, the international organizations can’t do what they’re supposed to do, so we need a smaller, more agile group of the countries that “really matter” who are going to actually go out there and do things. In fact, April 2009 was the high watermark of them doing anything. And since then, really, they haven’t been effective.

But now we are at the point where we’re even grateful that they can get out a common statement. The whole year of India’s G20 presidency, there was no common statement. This is the first one. And it’s completely banal. It’s bland. There is really nothing in terms of anything to deliver for the rest of the world, or even for their own countries’ people.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Ghosh, let’s go to, speaking of statements, the Ukraine statement, the war statement, which was apparently negotiated over a hundred hours. I didn’t even think the summit lasted that long. Can you explain what came out of it and why Russia is so pleased with it?

JAYATI GHOSH: I think this statement actually reflects India’s growing political clout, because all these countries are trying to court India. And what it does is it’s a backtracking from the statement in Bali, the Indonesian presidency, in which the invasion by Russia of Ukraine was condemned and in which there was a request for the withdrawal immediately. All of that has gone. There’s no mention of Russia. It’s a very bland kind of statement that says, yes, you know, hostilities should cease, and countries should not try and get more territory from one another, kind of equating the two. And this is a reflection of the fact that the G7, let’s face it, currently sees India as more important than — or, rather, the current leadership in India as more important to court than standing up for what is clearly something very strong on their agenda otherwise in Ukraine, or even for human rights in India and other countries.

AMY GOODMAN: So, President Xi Jinping was not there. President Vladimir Putin was not there. The significance of this?

JAYATI GHOSH: Well, Putin can’t attend any international conferences in countries that — because of the problem that he could be arrested because of the warrant against him. That’s happened in South Africa, for example, recently, and, of course, now in India.

But the absence of Xi Jinping, which was a relatively recent announcement, is interesting. It’s Xi Jinping saying he can’t be bothered wasting his time. He went to the BRICS summit just the week before, and it was a significant summit because it involved the expansion of the BRICS. He’s going to various other international organizations. He’s really telling G7, “We don’t need you.”

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about climate change, the climate catastrophe, and how the G20 addressed it, so many climate activists around the world and right now victims of global heating so deeply concerned about the lack of real statement about it?

JAYATI GHOSH: In fact, what is most appalling is that this G20 has done nothing for the major problems of our time, and which are no longer in the future. They are all upon us, as we know. Climate change, absolutely, and the major disasters that are occurring across the world, really nothing of significance, just the usual statements that mean nothing. No concrete plan of action, just a general statement to work towards reducing fossil fuels, as if nothing has changed, as if, you know, the world is still the same world that it was even last year, which it is not. So, there was nothing, really, on any meaningful movement on climate change.

There was nothing on resolving the major debt crisis, which in about 80 countries today is worsening the possibilities of dealing with climate change, as well. And yet this was an issue that India had made one of the major concerns of its presidency. Modi had actually said, “We are going to work towards a resolution of the debt crisis.” Nothing on that. A terrible silence on the lack of taxation strategies, for example, wealth taxes on the very rich and sharing of information that would enable that, or even a better deal for corporate taxation than the one that is currently on the table. Nothing in terms of finding the resources that would enable countries to deal with not just the mitigation, but right now just the dealing with the impacts of climate change that so many are facing.

AMY GOODMAN: The African Union has been admitted to the G20 as a permanent member. The AU consists of 55 member states with a population of over 1.3 billion, just under the population of India. This is South African president’s spokesperson Vincent Magwenya.

VINCENT MAGWENYA: It was always a myth that you will have such forums for international economic cooperation running with the exclusion of large parts of the world. Now we are moving towards a direction that includes those parts of the world that were excluded.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the significance of the African Union now being a permanent member of the G20, and also whether you see the G20 descending in power, and BRICS — right? — Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa, the conference that just took place in South Africa, ascending.

JAYATI GHOSH: Well, you know, the African Union should always have been a member. It’s absurd that the European Union was a member and the African Union was not. I mean, that absolutely is the case. And so, clearly, this is something that should have happened much earlier.

But what’s the point of just being invited to parties? Which is really now what it’s become. It’s a talking shop, and it’s parties — no outcomes, nothing major, no serious initiative that would actually transform anything in the world today, whether on global health or on global public investment generally or on all of the issues that I’ve just mentioned. So, yes, it’s good that Africa is part of the party, but that’s about it, because it’s not — the G20 is no longer doing anything.

Now, that brings me to, then, what does it mean relative to the other groupings that are emerging? And, you know, BRICS Plus, for example. I think, you know, what we’re seeing is a period of significant realignments. So it’s all these pieces moving around on chess boards in a game where everybody wants to suss out what the other player is doing, but no one’s quite sure, and they can change. So, I think what we are entering is a period of significant instability not just globally in the economic terms as we know, but also in terms of geopolitics — different alliances, different shades of cooperation or antagonism. And it’s no longer, certainly, unipolar. But I don’t think there are very clear poles. Everybody says China is another pole. It’s not yet of that same level, but definitely there are many more different alliances. And we’re going to see many more of those, whether they’re expressed in groupings or not.

Is the G20 losing power? Well, you know, what power does it have? What has it done with that power over the last, really, more than 12 years? So, I would say the G20 is a collection of potentially very powerful governments — that don’t necessarily represent the interests of their own people, I might add. But nonetheless, this collection has not done very much over the last 12, 13 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you also talk about the sidelines of the G20, the U.S., India, Saudi Arabia, European Union announcing plans for this major railway and port project to connect Middle East with India? Many see it as a proposal to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And the also normalization even further of MBS into the international community, Mohammed bin Salman?

JAYATI GHOSH: Oh, I think the normalization of MBS is complete, and it shows how little G20 leaders really care about human rights. And I think that’s evident also in the courting of Narendra Modi, who has been responsible for quite significant democratic backsliding in India.

But what will this new initiative achieve? Well, I’ll wait to see if they put their money where their mouth is. There have been many attempts by U.S. and Europe to counter the Chinese influence, as they call it, in terms of the Belt and Road Initiative or other kinds of things. But then, they just talk a lot. They don’t really put money in there. The difference is that China actually puts significant resources and generated significant investments. So let’s see if that happens. At the moment, I’m a little doubtful.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the calls on G20 nations to agree on increasing taxes on the global wealthy? In the last decade, billionaires have more than doubled their wealth, from $5.6 trillion to $11.8 trillion. You were among the signatories of a letter addressed to the G20 ahead of the summit this weekend, along with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the former U.N. General Assembly President María Espinosa and hundreds of others. Outline what you’re calling for. How would this tackle global inequity and rising poverty?

JAYATI GHOSH: You know, there are two things going on here. One is that even as we talk about extreme inequality, it keeps rising by the day. Inequality is ballooning beyond any historical norms, beyond anything we could have imagined even 10 years ago. And yet, we don’t have minimal resources to address not just basic needs of humans, not just for meeting the sustainable development goals, but even to address the calamities that are occurring upon people.

So we desperately need to raise public investments. This whole idea that you can do it through these public-private partnerships, leveraging public funds for private, is fine, in principle, but right now you need public resources. You absolutely have to generate the money to do these basic things.

And it’s so easy, because there is this obscene wealth creation, which is really a result of influencing government regulations and government policies. All you have to do is tax a little bit of that, in a way that they wouldn’t even notice, because, frankly, no one notices that level of extreme ownership. They don’t really — certainly, they don’t use all that wealth, but they don’t actually notice how much there is, when you’re into those billions and so on. So, in fact, relatively small wealth taxes on the extremely wealthy — not on all wealth, on the extremely wealthy — would generate very significant amounts of revenue, even in countries like India. You would get, for example, less than a thousand families, if you tax them 4% of their wealth, you would get 1% of GDP, which is double the total health expenditure, public health expenditure in the country. So you could do this very easily. It’s a question that is striking, that all these meetings, they come and they talk about blah, blah, blah, blah; they don’t address some of the easy, low-hanging fruit that could have been agreed to, just sharing information that would enable people, the governments, to Institute wealth taxes on the rich of their own countries wherever they keep their wealth.

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