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Politicians and bureaucrats don’t pull an eye-popping wage (although some make up for it in expenses). What they mostly live for is power. Everyone who’s anyone, therefore, wants to be at this week’s Group of 20 meeting. The trouble is space is limited. Well, kind of. If it were as simple as inviting the top 20 richest countries based on gross domestic product, Belgium, in 21st spot, would no doubt understand. Who knows, it might pip Turkey next time.

But the guest list is complicated. There are no formal criteria, but the composition of the group is unchanged since it was established a decade ago. Very broadly, economic size matters. But Spain and the Netherlands are not members, in spite of being ranked 11th and 18th respectively based on International Monetary Fund estimates of 2008 output (although both countries have been invited to London). Far smaller South Africa and Argentina, on the other hand, have always been part of the cool gang.

In the G20’s own words, members must have “systemic significance for the international financial system”. Hence oil rich Saudi Arabia is a member. But where is Switzerland (neither a member, nor invited) or the United Arab Emirates (ditto), both important to global finance? Equally, the G20 aims to be geographically balanced and reflective of population. Here the group succumbs to tokenism. Thailand and South Africa may be far flung on the map, but are hardly big geopolitical hitters.

Meanwhile, eight of the world’s top 20 of most populous countries are missing. Many of the voiceless will be represented by chairs of regional bodies, such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations and the African Union Commission. In some ways they are nicely hedged: there if it works, not there if it doesn’t. That way, they can at least absolve themselves from responsibility if the grandees of the G20 flunk their big moment.

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