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India’s G20 presidency in 2023 will be remembered for many innovations – not just for its grandeur but also for historic decisions that could potentially reshape global governance for the better. During the final summit of the 18th G20 concluded last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of granting permanent membership to the African Union (AU) in the G20 was a pivotal moment. This move signifies India’s commitment to inclusivity in global affairs and paves the way for a more representative international order.

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ an ancient Sanskrit phrase, translates to ‘the world is one family’, encapsulating the idea that all of humanity is interconnected, and we should treat one another with love, compassion, and empathy. Quite similarly, ‘Ubuntu,’ is a Southern African philosophy, that means ‘I am because we are.’ These two philosophies share a profound belief in the oneness of humanity and the recognition that our actions affect not only ourselves but also the broader human family. They remind us of the imperative to nurture a sense of empathy, solidarity, and global cooperation in our increasingly and irrevocably interconnected world.

The G20, established in 1999, comprises 19 major economies and the EU, serving as an international forum for leaders to discuss and cooperate on global economic, financial, and developmental issues. It plays a vital role in shaping global economic policies, addressing topics like trade, finance, climate change, and development. Yet, a grouping this important hitherto had just one African nation – South Africa – as a member. India’s efforts in its presidency has resulted in including the AU in the grouping, which effectively becomes G21.

The journey towards this momentous decision began with India’s proposition at the ‘Voice of the Global South’ Summit in January 2023, where African Union member nations participated enthusiastically. Prime Minister Modi’s proactive approach in advocating for the AU’s inclusion deserves commendation. With the verbal support of key G20 nations like the United States, Germany, Brazil, China, and Russia, PM Modi’s efforts to build consensus bore fruit.

This move of working hard and obtaining consensus in including a population of one billion Africans into the conversation is a major step in global affairs and is yet another instance of India’s increasingly important in shaping global geopolitics. The country has taken yet another bold step toward its emerging status as a true Vishvaguru.

While this is an extremely laudable achievement, it raises a critical question: Can the AU collectively rise to the occasion and effectively represent Africa’s diverse interests and speak with one voice on the global stage? The AU’s 54 member nations are riven by deep divisions – many historical, the legacy of western colonialism, western corporate greed, the continual plunder of natural resources and centuries-old human exploitation. Much of the continent ranks low on the Human Development Index as a consequence and is plagued with political instability.

It has been difficult to get the AU to agree on many matters of importance to the weal of its peoples. For instance, the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, intended to establish a single continental market, has been disappointingly slow. Political disagreements, territorial disputes, and varying priorities among AU members have hindered progress. These divisions undermine the AU’s ability to address critical challenges like extreme poverty, political instability, and peace and security threats effectively.

On the global front, too, the continent has been severely divided. Only 28 of the 54 African nations supported a resolution for Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine in the early days of the war and even now after more than a year, 15 nations abstained in a more recent vote. While African leaders have attempted to mediate the Russia-Ukraine conflict, critics questioned the mission’s neutrality, revealing a lack of cohesive strategy.

With permanent G20 membership, the AU has an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the global stage. It must seize it to lead Africa towards prosperity, leveraging its newfound political and economic influence to unify the continent and address its pressing challenges. Its success will hinge on its ability to present unified viewpoints on economic and development issues. This is a golden opportunity to rise above divisions and demonstrate its potential to shape a better future for the continent and the Global South as a whole.

Africa’s G20 membership alone won’t bring immediate benefits and the AU will undoubtedly need a dedicated team of experts and perhaps even a dedicated Sherpa to navigate the complexities of global governance effectively. India, with its experience and its compassion-driven initiative to strive to include the AU in G20 is optimally placed to offer a Sherpa. But will it be acceptable to the AU?

This convergence of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and Ubuntu serves as a profound reminder of our shared responsibility to nurture a more compassionate and inclusive global community.

First appeared in the September edition of the Indian Weekender.