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.