The G20 Interfaith Forum Journey

By Katherine Marshall, Vice President, G20 Interfaith Association

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These remarks were initially presented in the Opening Session of the G20 Interfaith Forum meetings held in New Delhi, India from May 8-9, 2023. 

My mission here is to highlight the key milestones on the G20 Interfaith Forum’s journey that have brought us to New Delhi today. The central questions are why the interfaith voice is critical within the G20 process, how this Forum relates to the broader G20 process, and priority issues that are the Interfaith Forum’s focus. The G20 Interfaith Forum’s journey is approaching a ten-year mark; a few participants here have been part of work and events each year. So where have we come, where are we today, and how do we see the path ahead?

Katherine Marshall speaks with Ambassador Mussie Hailu between sessions of the G20 Interfaith Forum in New Delhi, India.

First, why the G20?

The G20 (Group of 20) is very much part of global governance structures today. It was created in 1999 with the prime mission of crisis management, and a tacit recognition of some of the difficulties of working within the United Nations system: notably, its complexity and size. The idea was to establish a more flexible, more adaptable, less formal mechanism, yet one that was more inclusive or less exclusive than the G7/8. Thus, the G20 or Group of 20 came into being, essentially as an annual summit of powerful world leaders, and it took on increasing importance after the 2008 economic crisis.

A feature of the G20 (like the G7/8) is that its presidency and thus location rotates every year. that’s why we are in India, as India is the 2023 host. In December 2022 Indonesia, the 2022 host, passed the presidency baton to India, which in December 2023 will pass it to Brazil and then on to South Africa. So, it is very much a rotating presidency, and each presidency takes on its own character.

A feature of the G20 is that there is no Secretariat. In other words, there is no permanent body of the G20. Because of this, the focus does tend to be on the central meeting, the actual summit of the leaders, which will take place this year in Delhi (September 9-10, 2023). Here in Delhi in May, we are thus focused on the annual G20 Summit. That, by the way, is why we talk about Sherpas (a Sherpa supports each G20 leader) because Sherpas guide the leaders as they move towards the summit.

The G20 has focused and to a large extent still focuses on the management of global crises. We are now in what we call the Polycrisis or permacrisis; in other words, the extraordinary combination of continuing crises that we face today. That is very much what’s on the G20 agenda. Their agendas have, however, broadened over the years so that they do now include the Sustainable Development Goals, which essentially means the entire global agenda. There is far more to say about the G20, but its power and focus on both crises and global agendas are the reason we focus on both the Summit and its broader roles.

So why faith and interfaith in the G20 process?

The vital and central role of the G20 explains why the G20 Interfaith Forum exists; at its core, the idea is that the experience and voice of world religious institutions can and should be part of setting and implementing global agendas. The world of religion, articulated in large part through interfaith efforts, belongs as a part of the G20. There are predecessors to that notion, for example in efforts to engage religious voices in the G7/8 processes since the 1990s. Parallel efforts include the faith representation at the United Nations. But our efforts as an institution and a collaboration since 2014 have focused on the G20.

Looking to the heart of the argument, with some 84% of the world’s population having some religious affiliation, there needs to be a way for that voice to be part of these global discussions. You hear this argument in many different voices and cadences, but the core idea is that leaving aside this large aspect of global life is a grave mistake.

And from there, our idea and objectives are that there should be a structured, systematic, and continuing voice of religious bodies in the G20 process.

The G20 Interfaith Forum has evolved over the years, becoming steadily more ambitious in its goals and broader in its focus. It began, was born, in 2014, when a meeting was organized alongside the G20 Summit in Australia. The G20 Interfaith Forum (IF20) has focused each year since then (Turkey, China, Germany, Argentina, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Indonesia, and now India) on the G20 process and agenda, normally centered on a meeting in the host country. (In 2022, the central meeting was in Abu Dhabi in December.) While there is a focus on a specific meeting or forum, increasingly the IF20 organizes and participates in a wider set of meetings and collaborations where the G20 agendas and issues are integrated in broader discussions on leading agendas, for example on refugees, children, climate, and religious engagement.

Notably following the German G20 process in 2017, the Forum has shifted its focus from a more academic discussion on diverse religious perspectives to a more explicit focus on the G20 agendas, and notably the most relevant Sustainable Development Goals, and on specific global issues such as the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath. The core idea is that the G20 Interfaith Forum supports and draws wisdom from the most active and relevant interreligious networks and thus, describes itself as a “network of networks.”

So where does the G20 Interfaith Forum fit within the complex G20 world, that some describe as a constellation?

The G20 process has expanded to include many institutions and efforts, posing the question of where and how the G20 Interfaith Forum (IF20) fits. There are different engagement groups, government or ministerial roles, focus groups, and beyond—a rather bewildering set of institutional forms centered on the G20, all with the basic objective of influencing G20 agendas. Beyond that, the broader global agendas involve a still wider set of institutions, both public and private. We thus debate and have explored where the IF20 fits within other G20 orbits. There have been some suggestions that we join different engagement groups, notably the C20 which focuses on civil society, the W20 (women), Y20 (youth), or even the B20 (business). We have worked with the T20 (think tanks) in the past. Our sense, however, is that there is something so distinctive about the interfaith perspectives that they need to have a separate voice with a distinctive place in the G20 system.  But for a variety of reasons, the IF20 remains an informal part of the G20 process. There are advantages and disadvantages to having the IF20 as a valued and respected member of the G20 process, but maintaining its own distinctive qualities, character, and organization.

That is basically where we fit at present: somewhat less formal, but very much a continuing part of the G20 process.

The IF20 is run as a virtual collaboration, engaging people from G20 countries and beyond, and represented by an Advisory Council that meets regularly. It has a small secretariat, is a US 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and works with a variety of universities, non-governmental organizations, academic and other policy experts, and religious communities around the world.

We are now in the 10th year in which there has been an active IF20 process. This process consists in forums, virtual and in-person meetings, coupled with continuing reflections and analysis, working groups, and partnerships that characterize the group that is gathered here and now in New Delhi. We are all working through a variety of networks on a wide variety of topics. The networks reflect a proliferation of different groups seeking to bring out the qualities of the inter-religious world with more coherence and achieve better coordination towards the stated objective of the 2023 G20 process: One Earth, One Unity, One Spirit.

So what is the central focus of the G20 Interfaith Forum, now and looking ahead?

We see the G20 Interfaith Forum very much as offering the opportunity of a “network of networks” to come together to coordinate, to look at what each other is doing, to set priorities, and therefore to bring more effectively the best of religious work and ideas to the tables where global policy issues, urgent and long term, are the focus. We aim to amplify both the powerful and the prophetic voices and the day-to-day knowledge of lived religions in the deliberations of the G20.

We are living in an extraordinary time of crisis. That puts an even greater premium on the G20 leadership than has been true in the past and thus on the G20 Interfaith Forum. What we are seeing today is the constant, dynamic intersections of different crises. There is no clear line that separates the climate crisis from hunger, the refugee situation from conflict and peacebuilding, and health and education from the plight of women and children. The conflicts that the world faces all come together in ways that demand of the G20 leadership and of its G20 partners the kind of distinctive, varied, and in-depth focus that groups such as the IF20 can provide. As a collaborative group, we address all these diverse dimensions. Within the constraining reality of a focused, targeted effort, the G20 Interfaith Forum aims at authentic inclusion of diverse perspectives and actors that can make practical, concrete and substantive contributions to global policy formation..

It is not difficult to take the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 targets, and for every single one, to highlight some faith dimensions. Many, however, forget or ignore this complex reality. But we, as the IF20, never forget that the world’s religious communities are part of every single one of the crises the G20 addresses. Our challenge is much less to focus on water, for example, or to zero in on any specific issue, but to try to discern how the common elements and shared values emerging from religious diversity can help build livable habitats in which a common life is possible.

That brings me to a final point: the effort to look at recommendations and our ideals for what we think that the G20 leaders should do when they meet at their summits.

We develop specific recommendations in a number of sectors on a continuing basis, particularly on the issues around health and COVID, which has been the crisis for the past few years, on education, conflict, which link to the crisis of refugees, on climate and environment, and on a theme that unites us all: the welfare of children. But if we look for the theme that we, as this group, put to the G 20 leaders as they meet in their Summits, it is “never forget the most vulnerable.” That is in many senses the ideal, the idealistic mission of religious communities in this particular setting. And that requires bringing together specific ideas on each one of the sectors. As India’s G20 leader, Harsh Shringla, said when he addressed the IF20 pre-meeting, the G20 has had a very sectoral focus but needs to rise above it.  Our IF20 mission is to try to see the common themes, and above all, to keep a laser focus on the problems of the most vulnerable, particularly children, women, refugees, the hungry, and too many other groups. We see that as the primary focus and our primary message.

Here in India, we will work to sharpen and highlight the different ideas, proposals, and urgings we have worked on to date. We see this very much as a continuing process, as the IF20 pursues its journey, moving on from India to Brazil and to South Africa. We count on all of you and your networks to be part of our journey forward.

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Professor Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. She serves as the vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, tackling development issues in the world’s poorest countries.