Do we need new ways to govern the world?

Sensemaking / Do we need new ways to govern the world?

Jon Turney looks beyond today’s low expectations of global governance – and asks what new approaches might emerge.

By Jon Turney / 26 Jan 2015

The world today looks like a giant failed state. Think about it, says Owen Barder, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Weak institutions. No rule of law. No way to enforce contracts. No way to finance public goods. A failing health system and growing inequality. A country in this condition would face calls for intervention. How about a planet?

The question is pressing in our globalised world. Globalisation has come a long way, at least as a buzzword. Something like it was first popularised in pioneering media analyst Marshall McCluhan’s idea of a ‘global village’ in the 1960s. In the 21st century the term seems to fit plenty of trends – for good or ill – in economics, trade, culture and communication. The World Wide Web is a metaphor that can apply to a lot more than the internet.

Amid all this, one area lags conspicuously. We all still live in nation states, each flying a flag for territorial law-making and bounded sovereignty. We, and they, have to deal with more and more systems that call for global governance. Climate is the most obvious: airborne carbon dioxide recognises no borders. But the global food system, water management, and international finance all demand co-ordinated action above the level of the state.

A clutch of institutions, most dating from the years after World War 2, try and deal with planet-sized problems. You know the ones – their acronyms pepper countless news stories: the UN, WHO, FAO, OECD, WTO, IMF. But they aren’t up to the job. The world has changed. Our global politics are multipolar, not bipolar. There are nearly four times as many states as there were in 1945. Our problems are more complex, and more interconnected, but states still typically pursue a narrow vision of national self-interest. And the UN, in particular, is hamstrung by its systems of voting and vetoes.

Keith Bezanson, a Canadian diplomat and former director of the Institute of Development Studies, emphasises the noble intentions that spurred establishment of the UN, but says “the trouble is it can only be as sound as its membership – and that’s been the problem from the outset”.

He cites nearly a score of attempts to reform the system, going back as far as the 1950s, but all have foundered, leaving the UN apparatus under-funded – it has fewer employees altogether than Disneyland, he points out – and unable to take the lead on key issues.

The result? A recent report from the Global Challenges Foundation doesn’t go quite as far as Barder, but finds existing arrangements for global governance low on effectiveness as well as legitimacy, and especially bad at dealing with deepening connections between global issues. Nor does it expect that to change any time soon. “There is for the moment a stalemate on reform action, in not just the UN but in most global institutions”, says the report.

So where do we go next? We tried mega-summits on the environment. They got bigger and bigger – from the first in Stockholm in 1972 to the latest and largest in Rio in 2012. That meeting, with the crowd swelled by a host of lobby groups and NGOs that didn’t exist when the process first started, saw 44,000 people converge on Rio. The results, according to Frank Biermann, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and leader of the Earth systems governance research network, were “meagre”.

Ways to do better, he suggests, could include ‘minilateralism’, involving agreements between two or more countries rather than all of them. That is not a straightforward way to achieve global results, but can certainly move things forward. The unexpected bilateral initiative to agree greenhouse gas emission targets between the ‘G2’, that’s the US and China, in late 2014, evoked welcome feelings of optimism around the crucial series of climate policy meetings that began in December and continues through 2015. This still builds on nation states finding it in their interest to agree national action, and of course relies on their ability to deliver. Another way forward, according to Biermann and others, is through bottom-up approaches, uniting civil society and the private sector. A network of megacities launched in 2005, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, is an important example of how this can add up to large-scale action. It brings together megacities, including New York, Seoul, São Paulo and Rio, to work on issues like carbon accounting and green growth. And such efforts can dovetail with new moves involving more established institutions – as the C40 Group's involvement with the World Bank and others in the Cities Climate Finance Leadership Alliance, launched in September 2014, shows. As the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations put it in 2013, networks can create “a framework for government without requiring the sacrifice of sovereign power … facilitate equal and open dialogue and trust between participants”.

Another example of joined-up thinking emerges from the elaborate conversations that developed around the definition of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), up for adoption in December 2015, the same month that current climate talks reach their climax. The SDG process is an extremely ambitious effort to create the basis for what Alex Evans of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University calls “a more inclusive and sustainable globalisation”. In line with that, the goals have been framed with input from a host of high-level expert discussions but also from an 'open working group' orchestrated by the UN and a host of consultations from face-to-face discussions to online surveys. “Never before has so broad and inclusive a consultation been undertaken on so many matters of global concern”, said Ban Ki-moon in a report synthesising all the deliberations that appeared in December.

The Oxford Martin Commission cited the original UN Millennium Development Goals as one area where disparate groups came together to create significant progress. The SDGs should take that further, going some way towards generating growth where it is still needed to relieve poverty, while also taking environmental costs into account.

One of the problems of global governance is not new. It is the simple truth that virtually no organisation ever announces that its day is done and that it should be wound up. To counter this, the Oxford Martin Commission makes the optimistic suggestion of writing sunset clauses into the constitution of publicly funded international institutions, to avoid the lock-in we seem to have with the UN and the World Bank. It would not necessarily lead to anything winding up, but would provide regular openings for reconstituting organisations whose structures have become out-dated.

More innovative approaches may emerge from new technological possibilities. Getting the data in order is an essential first step.

This ties in with developing and monitoring indicators to provide an objective view of progress towards sustainable development targets. An exemplary project pointing in the direction of publicly available indicators of this kind is the Global Governance Monitor, a web platform developed by the US Council on Foreign Relations that displays detailed, regularly updated information and explanations of global progress (or lack of it) in dealing with conflict, crime, climate change, regulating finance, and public health, among other topics.

Some envision radically decentralised networks that gradually supersede existing functions of the state. One possible future scenario, developed in a Forum for the Future workshop in 2014, shows access to data and more densely connected peer-to-peer groups allowing people to organise many key social and health services themselves, and to agree how to operate them through a kind of 'wikidemocracy'. Over time, in this possible world, “alternative decision-making entities are likely to exist, that cut across national boundaries”. National governments would have a much-reduced role, supporting key welfare and defence projects and big infrastructure projects.

In this vision localised and networked contributions do not replace overarching frameworks for global governance but complement them. There is still global regulation, which is science-led and laid down in global treaties in areas such as biodiversity and the environment.

The bottom-up possibilities are where there seems most scope for innovation, though. There is already a range of ventures which tap into unsatisfied political impulses by offering people chances to join online campaigns – often with the actual campaigns chosen by the same online community. Can this be globalised? Simon Anholt, the inspiration behind the recently launched Good Country party, aims to enrol the 700 million people worldwide he calls “new cosmopolitains”, who feel disenfranchised, and disenchanted with nationalist outlooks on planetary scale problems. This initiative, framed by the former political consultant and adviser to governments on how best to improve their international image (hint: by doing good things) is just getting off the ground, but Anholt argues that the 700 million potential sympathisers could add up to “a global superpower”. His new venture follows his creation of the Good Country Index, another data-crunching exercise designed to illuminate politics in a different way from conventional campaigning.

Yet another strand of innovation is promoted by engineer Peter Head, whose, supported by the Ecological Sequestration Trust that he founded when he left the mega-civil engineering company Arup, aims to build a system for incorporating a myriad varieties of information in comprehensive models of the physical, biological and social environment, “to integrate human –ecological –economic systems”. This will eventually be on offer as an open-source platform that can be adopted by, for example, city planners trying to balance costs and benefits in systems that interact on a regional scale. It is not quite global governance, but does offer the prospect of a working platform which allows policy-makers to do joined-up analysis of issues it can be difficult to connect, and to link local and regional decision-making to global responsibilities.

All this could be accelerated by further tech development. For example, a Scottish start-up, MaidSafe, has bold plans to redesign the internet as a much more decentralised, peer-operated network, essentially by doing away with massive server farms and using spare capacity on users’ own computers. Its secure Access for Everyone (SAFE) network would involve individual users in creating and broadening the network instead of just using it. Perhaps it could even lead to a self-created, globalised conversation about governance.

Jon Turney is a science writer, editor and lecturer and author of The Rough Guide to the Future

Image credit: Umbrella Revolution by Alcuin Lai


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