A policy instrument to create a world that works for everyone
Grand plans don’t need big bangs
Often we only notice things when they go wrong, such as a crisis, disaster or illness. Then we take urgent action to fix the problem and prevent it happening again. If we are clever, determined and lucky, it works. Things get better. But success can breed complacency. We may fail to deal with new problems properly until things suddenly spiral out of control and it’s too late to avert a catastrophe, as with the two world wars.
Global agreement to tackle global problems is a slow process, easily delayed by a few nations, particularly if they are large and powerful. But we don’t need to wait for complete agreement to solve problems. The best way to improve global governance is to recognise and improve the way it happens now.
We propose that coalitions of the willing can take Accelerate Global Action to make rapid progress on critical issues, within a framework of principles to prevent mistakes like the 2003 Iraq war.
At a global level we face critical risks now and increasingly in the future which could tip humanity into an existential crisis, such as runaway climate change, collapse of biodiversity, nuclear warfare, pandemic disease or the possible loss of control to a future AI. Unsustainable consumption, population growth, conflict in the Middle East or central Africa, trade wars or the fragmentation of global governance could also trigger a catastrophic chain reaction.
Our governments have learnt from past catastrophes. Since World War II, humanity has dramatically improved political systems and technology to make most peoples’ lives safer, longer and often happier. World population has grown by over a fifth since 2000, more than 1.4 billion people, without serious incident. Almost a billion people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. Contagious diseases are contained. Average global life expectancy is up, from 60 in 1960 to 72 years. Peaceful travel and trade have increased dramatically. The Iraq war was a disastrous mistake and too many people suffer from conflict, but fewer people are killed in war and natural disasters. The 2007/8 financial crash was more severe than in 1929, but lessons from the past meant its consequences were less savage, although mistakes were made and many still suffer as a result.
Global governance is fragmented and fragile
Our current system of global governance is highly sophisticated, involving more than seven thousand international agencies (note 1). They are not centralised or controlled by a single executive, but thousands of bodies accountable to myriad government departments, businesses and civil society groups as well as the UN. This system of global governance is complicated, uncoordinated and expensive. It struggles to cope with countless challenges and potentially catastrophic or existential risks (2, 3, 4, 5). We cannot afford to wait for everyone to agree to bring about major reforms.
Many sensible world leaders know about the problems but, as Jean Claude Junker said about economic reform in 2007, “We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it”.
There is no shortage of ideas about how to run the world better, but little prospect that they will be adopted, except perhaps after another major catastrophe . In 2016 the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) launched a Global Governance Prize for “a governance model able to effectively address the most pressing threats and risks to humanity.” It attracted 2,702 entries from 122 countries, drew up a long list of 14 and awarded $600,000 to each of the three winners. They join a growing library of reform proposals, including the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, The Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, the 1995 Commission on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood, and many, many more.
However good these ideas, they will struggle to get a hearing from governments, let alone action. The inherent tensions between national sovereignty and global governance makes it difficult for governments to commit time and money to large scale reforms. Powerful countries which benefit from the current system want to keep their privileges, while countries which suffer don’t have the power to act.
Governments act on global issues in broadly three main circumstances:
The first is impossible. A big bang wake-up call would be too late, since an extreme environmental, nuclear war or other existential crisis could spread too fast to be contained. It is tempting to hope world leaders could recognise the benefits of reform to avert an existential crisis and work together to create a better system without a crisis. But they won’t. They have too many domestic problems and it is easier to blame others than to work together to solve global problems.
But the second two routes to reform - concerted action by a coalition of the willing in response to a threat or common problem – has already transformed global governance. Although “coalition of the willing” got a bad name in the illegal Iraq war of 2003, it is the main way in which global governance is reformed. The UN system itself was initiated by a coalition of just 26 nation states in 1942 and founded by a mere 51 nations.
How reform really happens
We don’t need to wait for consensus or a crisis to bring about radical reforms. All changes in global governance were pioneered by independent actors or small groups of states and agencies responding to need – such as the Red Cross (1863), the Bank of International Settlements (1930), the UN (1945) and Sustainable Development Goals (2015).
Many initiatives have made progress on difficult issues over the past century through concerted action by relatively small groups taking the initiative, including coalitions of civil society (Jubilee 2000, Landmines ban); corporate initiatives and codes of conduct such as the Sullivan Principles for South Africa; special Rapporteurs of the Secretary General; High Level Panels (HLPs); open working groups; “coalitions of the willing”; Contact Groups of states and agencies; and Track 2, and ‘Citizen diplomacy’.
More recently innovative deliberative processes, crowdsourcing and social media have engaged
diverse stakeholders in creating solutions and building consensus for change, such as the Sustainable Development Goals.
Initiatives like these should be recognised as the main way in which global governance develops, perhaps under the title of Accelerated Global Actions, with a framework of principles and flexible guidelines as outlined below.
Accelerated Global Action (AGA)
Global decision-making can harness initiatives for change by providing recognition, support and guidelines to build consent and ensure legitimacy for Accelerated Global Action. Any agency, state or even individual may initiate action to tackle a critical issue, often in the face of opposition, such as the campaigns on apartheid, climate change, landmines or smoking. Over time, they gain support and lead to changes in international policy or law. To ensure that they are legitimate as well as effective, it is worth drawing up principles and guidelines along the following lines.
Initiatives to tackle global issues should be transparent; consider evidence from all sides and impartial sources; seek to build trust and mutual understanding; be solution-focused, seeking mutual benefit and win-win solutions; keep stakeholders informed and engaged; and uphold the principles of the United Nations, human rights and the rule of law.
To make the most of global initiatives, we propose that:
First, the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) keeps a public register of initiatives by topic and keep the UN Secretary General (UNSG), GA and member governments informed.
Second, the UNSG, GA and other UN bodies has both the right of initiative and the authority to support
accelerated global action on critical issues in their area of competence.
Finally, initiatives should work towards a global consensus on priorities and a plan of action and aim to be endorsed by a recognised world conference or resolution of the UN General Assembly.
By supporting Accelerated Global Actions, the international community can harness people’s commitment to solve problems better and faster.
Priorities for Accelerated Global Action
Accelerated Global Actions in the following twelve areas can build on existing initiatives to create an equitable and effective system of global governance:
The first three areas aim to create the global consciousness, understanding and capabilities essential for effective global cooperation and decision-making, so it is worth outlining what Accelerated Global Action would mean in these areas (see A World that Works for Everyone for more detail).
Conclusion: making global governance work for all
The best way to bring about change and fulfil the ambitious vision of the Global Governance Prize is not to draft blue prints and try to persuade politicians to back them, but to seek “gateway reforms” in response to a threat or common problem and build a determined coalition to solve the problem, as for the Law of the Sea, Montreal Protocol, Landmines Convention, International Criminal Court, and climate change.
The first gateway reform is to get UN recognition for Accelerated Global Action (AGA) as a legitimate and effective way of making progress, by bringing the proposed Guidelines and Principles to the UN General Assembly.
At the same time, we need to encourage people to continue their own Accelerated Global Actions in the following priority areas:
These four areas are fundamental, because all humanity needs to understand how deeply connected we are, through our shared air, earth and water. Communications, education, finance, trade and shared decision-making through global institutions have a direct impact on our everyday lives, whether in Afghanistan, Beijing, Iowa, or Zimbabwe.
By taking Accelerated Global Action on critical issues, humanity can usher in a new era for humanity, to create a world that works for everyone.
UIA (annual) Yearbook of International Organizations, Union of International Associations, Brussels, http: //www.uia.org;Hurd, Ian (2010), International Organizations: Politics, Law, Practice, Cambridge University Press;
Rittberger, V., Zangl, B. and Kruck, A. (2012) International Organization, 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
AUTHOR: Robert Whitfield, Chair of Trustees
The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) in 2016 asked a question of fundamental importance to the future of humanity. It deserves wide appreciation for seeking answers to this question, assessing those answers and launching a global movement to implement the ideas that emerge from them. But did it address the right question? Not entirely: it failed to adequately address existential risk and the emerging challenges of the 21st Century. It is not too late to adjust however.
GCF launched the New Shape for Global Governance Prize (New Shape) in November 2016. Participants in the competition were invited to “Design a governance model able to effectively address the most pressing threats and risks to humanity.”
Each word in the above sentence is powerful: combined they define the essential challenge for humanity in the 21st Century. The requirement went on:
“The task is not to come up with direct solutions to specific problems. Rather, it is to design a general model for decision-making, with the aim of generating such solutions and the ability to do so, and possessing the resources to effectively implement them.”
This made it clear that what was sought was not a list of solutions but a set of institutional changes that would reliably generate those solutions.
Finally the requirement set a time frame: “The governance model must also be such that it can be implemented within the foreseeable future. This requires that it be acceptable to major states and the wider international community. A significant measure of civic acceptance is also required. This requirement eliminates models that rely on time-consuming and controversial changes in the political system of individual states, e.g. models that postulate that all states should be democracies.
This time condition avoided the arbitrary confines of a specific date, but at the same time indicated a “sooner rather than later” message. This condition added a necessary element of reality to the question, without being too prescriptive.
The framing of the question successfully avoided the trap of being too constrained by the starting position whilst on the other hand avoiding the trap of being too theoretical.
The New Shape Prize attracted a remarkable 2,702 entries from 122 countries,. This reflected the substantial prize and extensive promotion around the globe. Furthermore, GCF organised and resourced an effective assessment and adjudication process. Of crucial importance is that they do not appear to be stopping there. By organising the New Shape Forum at the end of the assessment phase, they started to bring together a global community to nurture its development. The current phase consists of working groups on the major themes to create coherent proposals in time for the Paris Peace Forum in November 2018.
The missing risks
There is one aspect of the question however that is open to some criticism. It is not too late to remedy this weakness now, but it is essential that it is indeed remedied. The weakness relates to the wording of the challenges that humanity faces. The words used by GCF in the competition were as follows:
“The major problems and risks are climate change and other large-scale environmental damage and politically motivated violence (war, civil war, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction). Other major problems faced are extreme poverty and rapid population growth.”
The problems and risks listed are certainly major and need to be able to be addressed in an effective and timely manner. But the GCF wording is not all encompassing and indeed omits some of the most devasting risks. An all-encompassing term for the most serious of risks facing humanity is existential risk A "global catastrophic risk" is any risk that is at least "global" in scope, and is not subjectively "imperceptible" in intensity. Those that are "trans-generational" (affecting all future generations) in scope and "terminal" in intensity are classified as existential risks.
Nick Bostrom identified, in his key 2002 paper a list of 23 existential risks. This list included some catch-all items and some post-human risks that need not be addressed in this current governance design. But the key point is that apart from the risk of a comet or asteroid collision with earth, the first existential threat in human history was not until the mid 20th Century, with the first detonation of an atomic bomb. Nuclear Armageddon and comet or asteroid strikes are, in Bostrom’s words, “mere preludes to the existential threats we will encounter in the 21st Century.”
The GCF wording identifies two categories of risk that cut across the Bostrom classification, namely
Such an error or loss of control may lead for example to
Identification of such risks continues as technologies develop, our technological forecasting capability improves and our search for risk intensifies.
Whether these risks arise from malintent or from error, what is clear is that governance for the 21st Century must be designed to protect humanity from both the global catastrophic risks of the 20th Century and the new existential risks emerging in the 21st Century.
 Bostrom, Nick (2013). "Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority" (PDF). Global Policy. Future of Humanity Institute. 4 (1): 15–3. doi:10.1111/1758-5899.12002 – via Existential Risk.
 Nick Bostrom, Professor, Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University www.nickbostrom.com
[Published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, No. 1 (2002). (First version: 2001)]
Blog posts from Trustees and associates of the One World Trust