Saudi G20 summit pledges fair global vaccine access but stops short of developing world debt relief

G20 communiqué pledges to ‘spare no effort’ on vaccine access but promises no new money for treatments or debt cancellations for developing nations

Ben Chu
Economics Editor
Sunday 22 November 2020 19:25 GMT
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chaired the final session of the second day of the G20 Riyadh Summit
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chaired the final session of the second day of the G20 Riyadh Summit (EPA)

The leaders of the G20 have pledged “affordable and equitable access for all people” to new coronavirus vaccines, but stopped short of committing new funds to meet that commitment or to deliver debt cancellations for developing nations whose economies have been badly hit by this year’s economic crisis.

The communiqué issued by the Leaders’ Summit of the multilateral forum on Sunday called the pandemic an “unparalleled shock that has revealed vulnerabilities in our preparedness and response and underscored our common challenges”.

On vaccines it stated: “We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people.”

Western pharmaceutical companies including Pfizer and Moderna earlier this month announced that their vaccine candidates had proven up to 95 per cent effective in trials. 

The US, the EU, the UK and Canada have pre-ordered tens of millions of doses of these drugs, but there are growing concerns about the access of developing countries to the potentially life-saving medicines.

Saudi Arabia holds the presidency of the G20, but this year’s Leaders’ Summit was held virtually because of the pandemic, which has killed more than 1.3 million people around the planet this year.

The European Union had urged other members of the forum to put more money into a global project for the distribution of vaccines. But there were no specific financial pledges in the communiqué, which followed two days of online meetings by world leaders.

“There is a clear recognition from the G20: if we leave any country behind, we will all be behind,” the Saudi finance minister Mohammed al-Jadaan told the event’s closing news conference.

The G20 agreed in April to suspend debt interest payments due to western governments from up to 73 low-income developing countries under a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI). This has so far deferred an estimated $5.7bn of debt service payments. 

But the forum has come under pressure to write off those debts entirely, as the world economy enters its biggest slump on modern record and many poorer states face huge financial pressures.

The International Monetary Fund has forecast that sub-Saharan African GDP is on track to contract by 3 per cent this year and that debt-to-GDP ratios are heading to over 60 per cent. Countries such as Angola, Zambia and Ghana are estimated to be in the most difficulty.

Sunday’s communiqué agreed to extend the suspensions of debt repayments until mid-2021, but stopped short of agreeing to a write off of the total sums owed.

“Given the scale of the Covid-19 crisis, the significant debt vulnerabilities and deteriorating outlook in many low-income countries, we recognise that debt treatments beyond the DSSI may be required on a case-by-case basis,” it said.

Saudi Arabia will hand over the G20 presidency to Italy next month, and it will fall to the government in Rome to resurrect the issue of developing world debt forgiveness in 2021.

“The world is not out of the woods yet in terms of this crisis,” said the IMF’s managing director Kristalina Georgieva in a statement after the summit. 

“Cooperation is going to be even more important going forward.”

Campaigners stressed the need to go much further on debt forgiveness.

“Too many developing countries are still left out of debt relief and aid measures,” said Eric LeCompte, the executive director of Jubilee USA Network. 

He added that the G20 needs to implement a wider debt relief framework, pointing out that six of the 12 countries with the highest coronavirus death rates are middle-income countries, which remain outside the scope of the G20 debt process.

At the summit, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called for the G20 nations to commit to help plug a $4.5bn funding gap in the so-called ACT-Accelerator, a mechanism led by the World Health Organisation that aims to ensure universal access to tests, treatments and vaccines.

On climate change and environmental protection, the G20 communiqué states that its members are “committed to safeguarding our planet and building a more environmentally sustainable and inclusive future for all people”.

The Independent brokered a landmark declaration by 20 of the world’s leading wildlife organisations on the need for urgent action to avert another pandemic, which was delivered to G20 leaders at the summit.

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