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Who’s who in the G20 zoo? Focus on the sherpas

The G20 sherpas might not always be easy to spot, but they’re worth watching. Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet/Flickr

The spotlight may be on the leaders at this weekend’s G20 Leaders’ Summit in Australia, but who will be behind the leaders at the big table in Brisbane?

The G20 sherpas are very senior officials who have guided the policy process for the last year and finally got the leaders to the summit (cue guffaw from finance officials). Which of the sherpas will be smiling on Sunday?

The G8

EU, France, Italy, Germany, UK (Spain, the “permanent guest”)

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET/AAP

In between deciding who represents the EU as the diplomatic services fuse, the European sherpas will be focused on dealing with the effects of the 2008 crisis, especially youth unemployment. Forget Putin, the man everyone will glaring at will be Luxemburg’s Jean Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission after the tax avoidance leaks.

European Council President and seasoned summiter Herman Van Rompuy. EPA/Olivier Hoslet/AAP

The EU sherpa was Antόnio José Cabral, now Paulina Dejmek-Hack. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council will also will represent the EU, a seasoned summiteer. The UK will be protecting the City, and pushing its humanitarian credentials over an Ebola response. As the economic engine of Europe, Germany will be considering its investment options. In the long term, Europe will be defending its central role in postwar governance, especially the OECD and IMF. Gabriela Ramos, the OECD sherpa will be flying the flag for a focus on inequality.


The Japanese sherpa, Yasumasa Nagamine, has one of the hardest tasks in the G20. Japan has to revive its economy through the three pillars of “Abenomics”, reconfigure its energy sector after the Fukuyama disaster, and manage the relationship with ASEAN. This summit will be observed closely to see if the slight thawing of the relationship with China on the APEC sidelines continues.


President Obama might have difficulty pursuing his domestic agenda after the mid-terms, and getting the IMF reforms through Congress seem doomed, but he may be more fearless with the executive power. US sherpa Caroline Atkinson is a power player and will be capitalising on the historic climate deal with China this week. But there will be pressure from US companies like Apple to resist the corporate tax avoidance (BEPS) agenda.



Enio Cordeiro as Brazilian sherpa will be focused on trade now that a Brazilian, Roberto Azevedo, is running the WTO. Brazil, with Mexico and Argentina, is usually a strong voice for green growth, energy efficiency and development. The next climate negotiations (COP 20) will be in Peru.


Russian sherpa Svetlana Lukash. Russia G20

The Russian sherpa Svetlana Lukash is always a strong presence but consider the person who has to manage the economic impact of sanctions over the Ukraine dispute, protect the legacy of the St Petersburg Summit, and stop your leader getting shirt-fronted. Diplomacy with a high degree of difficulty. Russia is likely to stand squarely as part of the BRICS in Brisbane and keep the focus on employment.


Indian sherpa Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu. World Economic Forum/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

All eyes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his big international debut with the November summits, so Sherpa Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu will be feeling the heat of the spotlight. An agreement with the US on Thursday about India’s role in blocking the Bali trade facilitation agreement may take much of the heat away. India will undertake historic structural economic reforms, and G20 advice and pressure to meet growth targets will be important.


Most expect China to be named the host of the G20 in 2016 and to join the troika with Turkey and Australia. Chinese sherpa Li Baodong should have an excellent summit in Brisbane because China is still the engine of global growth, either number one or number two in terms of economic power (depending on how you count), and will be glowing with the success of APEC and the US climate deal.

Chinese sherpa Li Baodong. EPA/Justin Lane/AAP

A summit held in Australia profiles the Asia-Pacific region, and the role of Chinese investment here. The Chinese will be under pressure to clarify their position on transparency on beneficial ownership to prevent corruption. The President will make a historic address to the Australian Parliament next week.

South Africa

Jacob Zuma is a G20 veteran and BRICS stalwart, and sherpa Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko should have a productive summit. South Africa bears the weight of representing all of Africa, with the invitees, Senegal and Mauritania. We should expect a push to commit resources to tackling the spread of Ebola. Winnie Byanyima from Oxfam International is attending the summit and providing a powerful civil society perspective from Africa (Uganda). Nigeria is a contender to join the G20.



Under fire for justice for the missing students, Mexico will be facing pressure from the gathered press not related to its G20 role. A previous host of the Los Cabos Summit in 2012, Mexico will be enjoying the revival of the green growth agenda, and wondering why its campaign to take over the WTO went wrong.


Another high-profile political debut for the G20 Summit will be President Joko Widodo who will be bringing his new brand of blak-blakan (straightalking) diplomacy to Brisbane (one wonders if he could really outdo Mr Abbott on that score). The most important guest to the host nation Australia in diplomatic terms, Jokowi will get the red-carpet treatment, and so the new sherpa should have a great summit. Indonesia will be most interested in the infrastructure agenda.


South Korea is a key member of the G20, solving problems, building bridges between Asia and other regions and moving agenda issues like development and trade forward. Expect its sherpa to be working hard behind the scenes, as will invitees Singapore and New Zealand.

Argentina sherpa Cecilia Nahon. EEUU/Flickr, CC BY

Argentina is usually interested in trade and energy with a colourful leader in Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. Its sherpa is Cecilia Nahon. The focus will be on the fallout from the recent sovereign debt default in July and US legal action.

Saudi Arabia is usually focused on infrastructure and energy governance and is often one of the G20’s quieter actors. Saudi Arabia reportedly blocked Turkey’s bid for the UN Security Council and so there is likely to be tension with the next host.


Turkey will be the host in 2015, and the new sherpa Ayse Sinirlioglu will be taking all the lessons she can from Australia to prepare. Turkey has a conflict on its borders, its EU ambitions stalled, and domestic tensions, and so challenges lie ahead as host. But Turkey has a vision to become more central to global economic governance, and Istanbul is always voted one of the coolest cities on earth. This is the first time an Islamic country will host a summit of this nature. The buzz is building. Australia, Turkey, China is a fresh combination of economic governance and the possibilities are strong.


Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Australian sherpa Dr Heather Smith. Office of Tony Abbott/AAP

The Australian sherpa Heather Smith deserves a drink and probably a sainthood on Sunday evening, but the summit looks as prepared as it possibly can be, in form and substance. We should be grateful for her leadership and the work of the G20 Taskforce. At this point, the sherpas step back and watch their leaders work their political magic, with fingers crossed.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Caroline Anstey, rather than Caroline Atkinson as the US sherpa.

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