Civil society leaders from 40 countries concluded a three-day gathering in Tokyo on Tuesday with calls that, amid violence and legal restrictions on them globally, such organizations’ voices should not be excluded from the Group of 20 leaders’ summit set to be hosted by Osaka this year.

“There are increased worries that the space for civil society to operate in is shrinking, especially in Asia,” said Yuka Iwatsuki, the chair of Civil 20, one of several groups that advise G20 leaders on a broad range of international social and economic issues.

“The G20 governments must recognize that civil society organizations are indispensable and that a diversity of voices from civil society enriches policymaking,” she added.

Last week, C20 leaders presented recommendations to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on how to address a variety of issues ranging from corruption and education to the environment and engineering infrastructure. But it was the area of digital economy that has emerged as one of the key items on the agenda for when world leaders gather in Osaka on June 28 and 29.

“Technological innovation can play a role in overcoming a wide range of social and economic challenges, such as a graying population and climate change,” said Tamaki Tsukada, Japan’s G20 Sous-Sherpa and the Foreign Ministry official who outlined Tokyo’s agenda for the G20 summit.

“On the other hand, the pace of innovation-driven change is often difficult to respond to in a timely manner, resulting in economic and social dislocation,” Tsukada noted. “For the same reasons, efforts to create an appropriate system of governance tend to lag behind.”

For these reasons, he said, Abe has decided to accelerate international discussion on data governance among G20 leaders.

“We hope Osaka can crystallize global discussion on this very important topic,” Tsukada added.

But civil society leaders have warned that the G20 needs to remember such governance will have to come with the careful handling of people’s data.

“As the G20 discusses the use of data, it will be absolutely critical to create a new framework for governing the use of data that respects human rights, including the right to information and rights to privacy and security,” said Neth Dano, co-executive director of the Philippines-based ETC Group, which monitors the impact of emerging technologies and corporate strategies on biodiversity, agriculture and human rights.

“Any new global rules on the digital economy must ensure accountability and transparency and protect the rights of workers, farmers, youth and women in manufacturing, agriculture and service industries,” Dano stressed.

The Japanese government’s decision to make issues related to the digital economy a priority has also forced civil society organizations to consider how that would affect their own areas of expertise.

“Traditionally, many (nongovernmental organizations) have a ‘silo approach,’ studying development issues and not focusing as much on economic issues. So we had to do a lot of studying and preparation to come up with recommendations for the G20 process,” said Masaki Inaba, who serves as this year’s C20 sherpa.

Other discussions during the C20 summit have focused on transparency and anti-corruption measures, how to crack down on corporations that hide their money in tax havens, and environmental issues — such as the need for more G20 cooperation and funding to deal with cleaning up plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

In addition, participants emphasized the importance of the G20 leaders promoting so-called “quality infrastructure” — a somewhat vague term that can be used to refer to high levels of financial transparency and accountability for both the donors and recipients before international funding is poured into major civil engineering projects in lesser developed countries.

This year’s C20 took place less than five months after the conclusion of the 2018 G20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires.

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