What Is the Group of 20 (G-20)?

The Group of 20, also called the G-20, is a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 19 of the world's largest economies, including those of many developing nations, along with the European Union. Formed in 1999, the G-20 has a mandate to promote global economic growth, international trade, and regulation of financial markets.

Because the G-20 is a forum, not a legislative body, its agreements and decisions have no legal impact, but they do influence countries' policies and global cooperation. Together, the economies of the G-20 countries represent about 90% of the gross world product (GWP), 80% of world trade, and two-thirds of the world population. After its inaugural leaders' summit in 2008, the leaders of the G-20 announced that the group would replace the G-8 as the main economic council of nations. 

Key Takeaways

  • The G-20 is a leading forum for global financial issues whose members include major developed and developing economies.
  • Although not a legislative body, its discussions help shape financial policy within each of its member countries.
  • Recent agenda items at G-20 meetings have included cryptocurrency, food security, and trade wars.

Policy Focus of the Group of 20 (G-20)

The topics discussed by G-20 evolve in concert with the main global financial concerns of its membership. Initially, the group's discussion had a focus on the sustainability of sovereign debt and global financial stability. Those themes have continued as frequent topics at the G-20's summits, along with discussions about global economic growth, international trade, and the regulation of financial markets.

The agenda priorities for the 2019 G-20 Osaka summit illustrate how the G-20's topics reflect changing concerns. As host, Japan has proposed a focus on the global economy, trade, and investment, innovation, the environment and energy, employment, women's empowerment, development and health. The previous year, Argentina proposed a focus on the future of work, infrastructure for development, and a sustainable food future. That meeting also included talks on the regulation of cryptocurrencies and the U.S.-China trade war—both topics that seem likely to be discussed again at the 2019 summit in Osaka (June 28-29, 2019), and perhaps even at the 2020 (Riyadh), 2021 (Italy), and 2022 (New Delhi) gatherings as well.

The Group of 20 (G-20) vs. the Group of Seven (G-7)

The G-20's ranks include all members of the Group of Seven (G-7), a forum of the seven countries with the world's largest developed economies: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Formed in 1975, the G-7 meets annually on international issues, including economic and monetary matters.

Apart from being older than the G-20, the G-7 has sometimes been described as a more political body, since all of its meetings have long included not only finance ministers but chief ministers, including presidents and prime ministers. However, the G-20, since the global financial crisis of 2008, has increasingly held summits that include political leaders as well as finance ministers and bank governors.

And where the G-7 exclusively comprises developed countries, many of the additional 12 nations that make up the G-20 are drawn from those with developing economies. Indeed, having a forum at which developed and emerging nations could confer was part of the impetus for creating the G-20.

Russia and the Group of 20 (G-20)

In 2014, the G-7 and G-20 took different approaches to membership by Russia after the country made military incursions into the Ukraine and eventually annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. G-7, which Russia had formally joined in 1998 to create the G-8, suspended the country's membership in the group; Russia subsequently decided to formally leave the G-8 in 2017.

While Australia, host of the 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane, proposed to ban Russia from the summit over its role, Russia has remained a member of the larger group, in part because of strong support from Brazil, India, and China, who together with Russia are collectively known as BRIC.

Membership and Leadership of the Group of 20 (G-20)

Along with the members of the G-7, 12 other nations currently comprise the G-20: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, and Turkey.

In addition, the G-20 invites guest countries to attend their events. Spain is invited permanently as is the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); two African countries (the chair of the African Union and a representative of the New Partnership for Africa's Development) and at least one country invited by the presidency, usually from its own region. Countries invited to the 2019 G-20 Osaka Summit, for example, included the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, and Vietnam.

International organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, the Financial Stability Board and the World Trade Organization also attend the summits.

The chairmanship of the G-20 leaders' summit rotates among four groups of countries. As each group's turn comes up, its members negotiate among themselves to decide who chairs the meeting.

The G-20 has been criticized for lack of transparency, encouraging trade agreements that strengthen large corporations, being slow to combat climate change, and failing to address social inequality and global threats to democracy.

Criticism of the Group of 20 (G-20)

Since its inception, some of the G-20's operations have drawn controversy. Concerns include transparency and accountability, with critics calling attention to the absence of a formal charter for the group and the fact that some of the most important G-20 meetings are held behind closed doors.

Some of the group's policy prescriptions have also been unpopular, especially with liberal groups. Protests at the group's summits have, among other criticisms, accused the G-20 of encouraging trade agreements that strengthen large corporations, of being delinquent in combating climate change, and in failing to address social inequality and global threats to democracy.

The G-20's membership policies have come under fire, too. Critics say the group is overly restrictive, and its practice of adding guests, such as those from African countries, is little more than a token effort to make the G-20 reflective of the world's economic diversity. Former US President Barack Obama noted the challenge of determining who can join such a powerful group: "Everybody wants the smallest possible group that includes them. So, if they're the 21st largest nation in the world, they want the G-21, and think it's highly unfair if they have been cut out."