How to read the G20 Communique – some thoughts

Had a great day yesterday meeting my fellow g20voice bloggers, a wonderfully diverse crew from every corner of the world who will be blogging furiously at the G20 summit today. I led a discussion on how to read the communiqué that should emerge some time this afternoon: this can be pretty stressful, since they are written in diplomatic code and pundits are expected to come up with an almost instantaneous assessment within minutes. Here are some ideas (but I’m no expert, so if there are any more seasoned summit junkies out there, please feel free to add your own):

1. Read it all: it’s surprising how many journalists and NGOs pass judgement after the quickest skim of a document. You may be trying to get your spin in first, but it’s risky – you’ll regret it if you overlook some important detail or accompanying document (eg today’s document is likely to have lots of detail on tax haven reform in the annex).

2. Decide on Scope: Are you going to give an overall judgement, discuss in detail the parts your are most interested in, or both? Policy wonks can too easily get sucked into the detail, when what a journo or the general public want to know is ‘is it any good?’ If you really want press coverage, you can keep it simple and give it marks out of ten, but that leaves you with very little wiggle room and (usually) lots of enemies among those who disagree with you!

3. Get your tone right: Play it straight – welcome what is good, criticise what is bad. Avoid sentences that start with a grudging ‘even the World Bank/IMF/government admits etc etc’ – they sound sour, add nothing, and alienate potential allies in the institution concerned.

4. Spot the gaps: the hardest part is to identify what is not in the text, but that’s often the most important. Eg in today’s G20 communique, where is the UN system or anything on exchange rates?

5. Decode Diplomat-speak: communiqués are as much about tone as specific dates and numbers, and for tone, words matter. Take shall v should, for example. If a communiqué says ‘shall’ that means it has to happen, ‘should’ is just what sherpas (the civil servants who prepare for summits) call ‘best endeavours’ language – a wish, but not a commitment.

Strong language: ‘commitment’, ‘will’, ‘shall’, ‘agree that’, ‘take action’
Weak language: ‘should’,‘with the aim of’, ‘towards the goal of’, ‘best possible’, ‘appropriate’, ‘explore’, ‘encourage’

Best of luck – we’re expecting the G20 communiqué to be released around 3.30 (that’s when the final press conference is scheduled), so you’ll have something to practice on by the end of today.

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2 Responses to “How to read the G20 Communique – some thoughts”
  1. Chris

    Duncan one of the things that is unlikely to figure prominently in the communiqué is – despite the recognition by leaders such as Kevin Rudd that the GFC represents the “greatest regulatory failure in modern history”, and by Nicholas Stern that Climate Change is ‘the greatest market failure’ – analysis of how to address how neo-liberal policies have also, through the same failures, undermined social cohesion, devalued social reproduction and the ‘caring economy’.

    I’d really intrigued to get any insights why, when push comes to shove, these issues evaporate off the agenda at summits like this – usually including that of the larger NGOs – despite the overwhelming evidence that improving women’s well being, reducing gender inequality and removing obstacles to women’s leadership are all critical components of alleviating poverty, achieving the MDGs and improving well-being.


  2. Duncan

    Some additional post G20 thoughts on communique reading, as some people thought this might form the basis for a useful tool for future summits:
    – what mechanisms are put in place for follow up? Are deadlines set for report backs, or individuals or institutions tasked with further work? These could become important lobbying opportunities in the future and need to be pointed out.
    – beware Stockholm Syndrome: the combination of last minute haggling, breakthroughs, exhaustion, gossip and spin at summits generate a sense of pressure and euphoria which affects everyone, even NGOs (and journalists) who are very distant from the decision-making process. Their initial analysis is almost invariably too optimistic, and will have to be tempered subsequently. On the other hand, just cynically dismissing every commitment as spin is equally dishonest and unproductive. You need to give credit where it’s due both because politicians respond to carrots as well as sticks, and because endlessly announcing defeat is hardly likely to galvanize your supporters next time around. A fine line to tread, this one – often it’s best to raise general concerns (eg on the increased power handed to the IMF), rather than condemn out of hand.
    – be cautious on big numbers. Governments always put the best possible gloss on the numbers, double count previous commitments etc. Be as forensic as possible, which means having number crunchers who know the field on hand.

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