The thing that feeds the other ills

Development Policy25 Dec 2011Rob Annandale

We live, it seems, in a post-consensus world. Or at any rate, meaningful agreements appear to be beyond reach in the current global context.

The Busan and Durban summits have come and gone and can now take their places among the many other conferences that have promised so much and delivered relatively little. Next stop, Rio de Janeiro.

When was the last time international negotiations produced an accord that was ambitious, legally binding and inclusive all at once? Instead, we tend to get the lowest common denominator on climate change, vague and unenforceable pledges on poverty eradication or the exclusion of key players on arms control. While it is important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good in such complex negotiations, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) run the risk of legitimizing a process that holds little prospect of delivering the significant changes they seek. If these groups want different outcomes over the long term, they must address the structural blockage common to all these disappointments.

In his new book, Republic, Lost, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig stresses the importance of getting at “the root, the thing that feeds the other ills, and the thing that we must kill first.” Although he is referring to the corrupting influence of money in American politics, that “thing” in the context of tackling hunger or global warming is surely the artificial separation of the world’s people into 193 self-interested political parcels.

The result is what former UN special representative for business and human rights John Ruggie calls “governance gaps”, a term he uses to describe “fragmented and decentralized” political systems struggling to keep up with the integration of the economy, environment and other networks: “How to bridge those governance gaps, in my view, is probably the most significant challenge with regard to global policy for a generation or so going forward.” In other words, global challenges – or “problems without passports” as Kofi Annan called them – require global solutions that a system based on competing states is not providing.

As long as states represent the highest form of political authority, it will be impossible to channel human self-interest toward common solutions. What we need is a global democratic structure with accountability mechanisms and incentives/rewards that do not rely on the current nation-state system. Such a development would not necessarily mean the end of national governments but more likely, the creation of an additional body with global loyalties.

To that end, the UN is not the solution. The five Security Council vetoes, the membership of undemocratic regimes and the equal weight in the General Assembly of India’s 1.1 billion people and Andorra’s 80,000 might be the organization’s most glaring democratic shortcomings. But any club of nations must inevitably fall prey to governments that prioritize the interests of their own populations. A reformed UN could perhaps be the venue for discussions on establishing a new body that would represent the world’s people on a one person, one vote basis. But just as development industry workers are fond of saying they aim to put themselves out of work, the same should go for the UN.

If INGOs want to see real action on their traditional international issues, they must work towards a new form of governance that depends for legitimacy to a considerable extent on those they seek to help. And since the task will be a difficult one, they must do what NGOs are forever calling on governments to do: work together.

Of course, INGOs are not about to turn away from their fields of expertise to devote themselves fulltime to pushing for global democracy. But they are uniquely placed to challenge assumptions that allow people to protest against America’s one percent without considering that they could be members of the global one percent. To think that it is less wrong to have certain tightly guarded privileges for being born European than it is for being born heterosexual or male. Or to believe that democracy at the national level is worth dying for, but democracy at the global level is not even worth asking for. Imagine the potential impact on public discourse if a substantial number of INGOs formed a pact to devote, say, 10 percent of their time and resources to such a campaign.

There are obvious concerns about centralization of power, protection of minority rights and integration of voters from non-democratic countries that would need addressing. But recognition of these challenges should serve as the starting point to developing necessary checks and balances, rather than justification for maintaining a status quo that is so unfair to so many. When it comes to addressing world poverty, climate change, financial regulation, disarmament, etc., global democracy may be an insufficient condition, but it is a necessary one. The sooner we stop trying to fix problems with the wrong tools, the better for everyone.