Global governance

By Michael Oliver | 2000-01-01 12:00:00

Globalizing technology and market expansion are beginning to affect everyone on earth, transforming the way we look at things, the language we use, and the institutions we try to build. I want to reflect here on the changing politics of what is coming to be called “global governance”-an emerging order that is ruled jointly by governments and global civil society. But first, how is “global governance” distinct from government?

Global Governance

David Held, a British social scientist, suggests global governance comprises not only the institutions of state, and inter-governmental cooperation, but also all those organizations-from multinational corporations, transnational social movements, to the plethora of non-governmental organizations-which pursue goals and objectives that bear on transnational rule. My own simple summary of all this is that governance means action by government plus civil society; and global governance means action by governments plus global civil society. Now, what is civil society?

Civil Society

The term expresses a fundamental Western political dualism. We are used to hearing such contrasts as, for instance, between the City of God and the City of Man; or between the church and the state; or between the spiritual and the secular. “Civil society” is a secular version of the notion of the church as a countervailing check on the state. Some of its modern uses indeed make civil society a pluralistic version of “the people” to which the state is accountable.

The revival period in the late 20th century centred in Eastern and Central Europe, where the need to build a common life outside the control of the state was felt with particular urgency. As the idea of civil society gained in popularity, the problem of definition arose. It was clear that civil society included professional associations, scientific bodies, trade unions, churches, and voluntary, not-for-profit associations. Did it also include business and corporations? Or should the not-for-profit criterion be maintained, with associations representing business interests allowed in, but not the corporations themselves?

The new technologies of communication such as teleconferencing, fax, and e-mail have become vital to the emergent global civil society. We cannot overlook the importance of the Internet and e-mail in the campaign against landmines, in the build-up of global support for the International Criminal Court, or in the defeat of the Multinational Agreement on Investment.

At the global level, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become the dominant element in civil society-as long as we exclude the private business sector from our definition. It is above all the NGOs who claim to share power with governments in the process of global governance. The United Nations, founded as a body with “state members” has had to take them into account.

From their earliest days, U.N. agencies and programmes have been involved with civil society organizations (CSOs) as well as with states. In the 19th century, such bodies as the International Telegraphic Union (1865), the World Meteorological Organization (1873), and the Universal Postal Union (1874) developed relations with professional associations, scientific societies and business organizations. The standards, procedures and regulations they set reflected the best practices within these segments of civil society. Later, the International Maritime Organization (1958) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (1944) established global rules for sea and air, with input from professional bodies and the producers and consumers of sea and air services.

NGOs had little role in shaping the policies of these older bodies, or, at first, those of the Food and Agriculture Organization (1945) and the World Health Organization (1948), which dealt with scientific CSOs linked to universities, professionally-oriented public departments, and research centres. By the 1990s, however, things had changed and NGOs became involved in these agencies.

This was a decade of exponential growth for NGOs and for international ones (INGOs) in particular. The 176 INGOs that had been reported in 1909 had tripled by the 1960s. By 1993 the Commission on Global Governance reported 28, 700 INGOs. One stimulus to this growth was the U.N.‘s many international conferences on children, the environment and development, human rights, population and development, social development, women and human settlements. Probably the 1992 Rio Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) was the most important of them, for it was open to NGOs and INGOs concerned with global problems. The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations gave national NGOs status as consultants in a vote held in 1996. In the ’90s, almost every one of the U.N. agencies and programmes began using the term civil society and speaking of partnership in their official documents. NGOs were were invited to help in planning agendas, to speak at meetings (not just observe), and to have their documents circulated. Even within the Secretariat, permanent for a for policy dialogues were created.

Just as Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan have called for modifications in the doctrine of state sovereignty when human rights are at stake, these and other U.N. leaders are calling on states to share global policy-making with an emerging global civil society, and specifically with NGOs. Global governance means, it seems, the United Nations plus civil society. And the partnership, on the civil society side, will be dominated by the huge clusters of NGOs concerned with peace and disarmament, human rights, environmental security and sustainable development. More and more, NGOs are invited to sit with the representatives of states to create humane global policy. The Millennium Forum of NGOs will parallel the Millennium Assembly of the U.N. General Assembly. And perhaps, Annan suggests, “a new Trusteeship Council, transformed into a watchdog for the global environment” will link states and global civil society on that body.

Business In Global Affairs

But here we must pause. Is this the new pattern of global governance? In the same article, Kofi Annan also spoke of the importance of business and industry in global affairs, but seemingly as just one more element in civil society.

This impression was quashed in Annan’s speech at Davos, Switzerland, to the World Economic Forum in January 1999. In it he inaugurated the idea of a U.N./business partnership distinct from civil society. The Davos speech called for “a creative partnership between the United Nations and the private sector,” to be based on a “global compact of shared values and principles, which will give a human face to the global market.” This sounds like a replay of the U.N./civil society partnership, but with different partners. However, there is a crucial difference between the secretary general’s support for partnership with NGOs, and his support for partnership with business and the business-dominated private sector. In the first case, he is responding to a massive demand to be let in to U.N. circles; in the second case, he is taking initiative and asking business to come in.

In the Davos Compact business is invited to endorse and follow a definition of values in three areas: human rights, labor standards, and environmental practices. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ILO’s Declaration on the fundamental principles and rights at work, and the RIO Declaration of UNCED in 1992.But a compact involves a quid pro quo. If businesses follow the three codes, what do they get in return? What is the other term of the contract? Annan is not too precise on this point, but there are a couple of paragraphs that let us divine what he has in mind. Annan is worried about a global economy that has outpaced the ability of national governments to assure stability to the system, and to cushion its impact on people whom it hurts. He looks back to the period from 1945 to about 1975 when national governments were able to guide their economies, and finds there a tacit compact between business and government; business could expand in a liberal capitalist fashion if it accepted that government provide social safety nets, limit economic volatility, and compensate the victims of the market. Such a compact, it is implied, can no longer be recreated at the level of the individual state; it can only be reproduced at the global level. The United Nations, under the new Global Compact, encourages market capitalism to expand and helps eliminate barriers to its success, as long as world business accepts the three codes.

I admire Annan’s approach, but I remember that same period rather differently. I recall not a compact, but a business spokesman who fought mightily against safety nets, regulations, and control, and who felt defeated by “socialists” when they were enacted. I recall Social Democrats who took pride in forcing governments to control capitalism’s worst consequences in spite of business howls.

If an equilibrium was reached at that time, it was not the result of quiet negotiation and appeals to moral responsibility. Global Compact-skeptics have a right to ask: are there forces at work to make businesses behave according to Davos-endorsed codes? Would the Tacit Compacts of Western states in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s have worked if governments had been as weak in relation to their national economies as the United Nations is to the global economy? Is there a global civil society able to exert the same pressure on the United Nations as trade unions, social democratic parties, and NGOs do on national governments? Shouldn’t we be reinforcing NGO presence in the United Nat-ions and rallying around the Human Development Reports? Is this a period when we should stress countervailence rather than a compact of reconciliation?During 1999, NGO worries have been building about the implications of the Davos Compact; about the joint statement by the U.N. Secretary General and the president of the International Chamber of Commerce; about similar statements made by heads of agencies like UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme; and about the fact that the U.N. web page now has two sections, equally prominent, that lead to information about partnership with business and partnership with civil society. Recently, a group of NGOs protested against the leadership role being taken by the heads of UNICEF and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the Business Humanitarian Forum, which is chaired by Unocal, an enterprise that is “notorious” for human rights abuse in Burma, and which includes Nestle, a company that continues to violate the U.N. code of conduct on infant formula. There is concern that instead of the United Nations scrutinizing transnational corporations, it will scramble to get their support, regardless of their social and environmental impact.

I have no desire to sabotage Annan’s version of how the United Nations relates to global governance, but I do not have a clear idea of how a tripartite, neo-corporatist equilibrium will operate: the United Nations hand-in-hand with global business, hand-in-hand with global civil society. Perhaps I would be more optimistic if I knew of a couple of NGOs that had annual incomes greater than the gross domestic product of many states, as is the case for a dozen multinational corporations.

Pierre Trudeau used to talk of the problems of going to bed with an elephant. Annan seems to be inviting NGOs to join him in a dance with an “electronic herd,” as American journalist Thomas Friedman calls the financiers who lead trillion dollar stampedes. Globalization will continue and intensify. But I do not despair of just global governance, based on the United Nations, informed by something richer than market values.


While we wait to see how Annan’s Global Compact works out, I suggest:

Michael Oliver, a political scientist, has taught at McGill and the University of Papua New Guinea. He was formerly president of Carleton University and the U.N. Association in Canada. Much of the material used for this essay comes from a chapter of an upcoming book on the United Nations and Civil Society, edited by John Foster, to be published by the UNAC.

Peace Magazine Winter 2000

Peace Magazine Winter 2000, page 19. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Michael Oliver here

Peace Magazine homepage