What does the G20 actually do?

Christian Downie investigates how informal international organizations like the G20 govern

A large display of the Logo for the G20’s 2021 Italy Summit.
A display outside the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Matera, Italy. Photo taken on the 19th of June 2021 by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation of the Republic of South Africa accessed via Flickr.

In November, Indonesia will host the 17th G20 Leaders’ Summit. Leaders from arguably the most significant countries in the world will gather in Bali to discuss everything from the state of the global economy to action on climate change.

Unlike other gatherings, such as the United Nations, leaders will not have the support of an official secretariat, the guidance of a treaty, or any other resources that are typical of international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank or Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Informal international organizations like the G20 are on the rise with some estimates suggesting that there are close to 200 today. The G20 and the G7 are the most prominent, though others abound, from the BRICS Summit and the East Asia Summit to lesser-known organizations, such as the Polynesian Leaders Group.

While researchers have tracked the rise in the number of these organizations, very little is known about how they govern. How does an international organization with no treaty, staff or buildings respond to some of the most pressing issues facing the globe?

In this blogpost I try to find out. Drawing on my research and using the G20 as an example, I outline who G20 leaders turn to get work done, why they do so, and why other international organizations would want to work with the G20.

How does the G20 get things done?

Over the last decade, the G20 has called on 28 international organizations almost 500 times to help it govern in areas including finance, development, trade, energy, tax and labour, among many others. Indeed, organizations like the G20 often work by enlisting other organizations with the resources and expertise to implement their objectives. For example, in 2009 at the Pittsburgh G20 summit, leaders announced that they would phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. To do this they called on the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the OECD and the World Bank to ‘provide an analysis of the scope of energy subsidies and suggestions for the implementation of this initiative’.

This raises an additional question. Namely, how do informal international organizations decide which organizations to work with? Interviews with G20 negotiators pointed to two key factors. First, because the G20 has no resources of its own, it often looks to organizations that have expertise in the area it is seeking to govern, such as the OECD on tax reform, or the IMF on finance. In fact, in only 1% of cases did the G20 select an organization that had no secretariat capability.

The second factor is control. My research showed that G20 negotiators almost always select international organizations over which they have some control, such as over their funding or executive appointments. In only 7% of cases did the G20 president decide to choose an organization over which it had no indirect controls. As G20 negotiators explained, the reason is simple: you want organizations to produce reports that are consistent with what G20 leaders want, even if that may mean not pursuing the full truth.

Why do international organizations work with the G20?

What’s in it for organizations, such as the IEA or the OECD to work for the G20? The short answer is funding and legitimacy. The leaders of organizations like the OECD want to secure funding to pay for their programmes and staff, and because G20 countries tend to be the most important members of these organization they are keen to be seen in a good light.

Interestingly, for some organizations like the OECD, the legitimacy it gets from working with the G20 can also be vital to its survival. This is why the OECD, which needs to be seen as legitimate, and not an exclusive club of rich nations, has been keen to work with G20 leaders including those not among its members, such as China, India and Brazil.


Whichever way you look at it, there are good reasons to expect that when the G20 regroups in Bali in November, G20 leaders are likely to need international organizations almost as much as international organizations need the support of the G20.

Understanding how these organizations govern remains a work in progress, but it is a vital one if the world is to effectively address the next financial crisis, the next pandemic or even the next war.

Christian Downie is an Associate Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance, The Australian National University.

His article, ‘How do informal international organizations govern? The G20 and orchestration’ was published in the May 2022 issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
International Affairs

International Affairs


Celebrating 100 years as a leading journal of international relations. Follow for analysis on the latest global issues. Subscribe at http://cht.hm/2iztRyb.