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High Stakes in the New Global Politics

Article by Michael Edwards

September 15, 2006

The anti-globalization movement has been given an uncomfortable ride in the media since the events of September 11th. Protestors have been uncharacteristically muted, fearful of the inevitable backlash if their activities are seen as insensitive, unpatriotic, or merely irrelevant to fighting the battle of the moment. Ironically, this new mood comes at a time when the success of NGO campaigns is increasingly apparent. Recent global gatherings in Bonn, Qatar and Ottawa have been largely peaceful and successful in negotiating global rules tailored to the circumstances of developing countries: ratification of the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, agreement on exceptions to TRIPs for patents on essential drugs, and plans for a major increase in foreign aid to underpin a worldwide fight against poverty and the insecurity it creates. Partly because of sustained NGO pressure, there is growing support for structures that allow a wider cross-section of societies and their citizens to make the rules that govern potentially destructive behavior, whether expressed in the form of pollution, trade warfare or global networks of terror. Kyoto could not have happened without the worldwide environmental movement. Northern governments would not have given ground on TRIPs without NGO-inspired successes in Brazil, South Africa and elsewhere that developed into an international campaign to promote access to low-cost medicines.

The reason for these successes is simple: although non-governmental actors cannot replace the functions of elected governments, they do provide ideas, information, pressure for results, and the leverage required to implement solutions on the ground – all of which are necessary to solve global problems. Neither the G8 nor the United Nations can save the world from global warming – only people can do that when they judge that their own environment must be protected from their own actions, business offers them products and services that are energy-efficient, and governments are pressured to enforce new regulations. Acting alone, governments cannot confer legitimacy on global decisions, since legitimacy rests on public trust, and public trust requires a consensus across societies on how to manage the costs and benefits of globalization. In a world of declining state authority, that is impossible to achieve without business and civil society, so further engagement with these non-state actors is inevitable. The only question is how to structure it: but structure it we must if wider participation is to be translated into agreements that will last. Why?

Successful public deliberation doesn’t happen by accident – it must be carefully managed to avoid the gridlock effect of special interest politics and the distortions that flow from governance by those with the loudest voice. This is especially true at the global level, since so few elements of a global polity exist – the consensus-building mechanisms that operate in smaller communities, for example, or the direct links between elected representatives and their constituents that enable the exercise of accountability. Finding better ways to manage participation without eroding the diversity of non-state voices should be a priority for the international community. Instead of sitting on our hands and expecting the worst, now is the time to figure out some concrete answers and try them out in practice. Next year’s G8 Summit in Canada is the ideal place to start, since it is far enough away to make the proper preparations. A forum should be organized well in advance of the meeting so that governments, citizens groups and business can brainstorm solutions to non-state involvement and the dilemmas it creates – ‘who represents who’ in civil society, for example, and how to build consensus across such a diverse range of stakeholders. Travel and capacity-building funds should be made available so that under-resourced citizens’ groups – often those closest to the action – can participate in the summit. Business lobbies and Northern NGOs and should not be the exclusive players this time around.

At the same time, NGOs can do more to ‘put their house in order’. They can sign up to a non-violent code of conduct as a prerequisite to discussion – like the one recently drawn up by the New Economics Foundation – and work harder to bring in voices that are rarely heard. There are encouraging signs in the decision of some Northern NGOs (led by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy) to cede some of their accredited seats at the recent WTO meeting to their counterparts from the South. And – as the TRIPs negotiations showed in Qatar – NGOs can strengthen the legitimacy and impact of their positions by working on a common platform with Southern governments.

Such innovations are important because they challenge any temptation to use legitimacy as a tactic to exclude dissenting voices, rather than to structure a more democratic conversation. The fact that governments may disagree with NGOs doesn’t make NGOs illegitimate. The arguments are there to be won or lost on their merits, in the court of public opinion. But NGOs are more likely to be listened to if they are transparent, accountable, and accurate in what they say and do. This is the future of global citizen action: not gas masks and petrol bombs but a disciplined, democratic commitment to the responsibilities – as well as the rights – of global citizenship.

The early years of the 21st century are witnessing the growing pains of a new world politics, in which the boundaries between direct and representative democracy, and between local, national and global governance, are being tested and rearranged. Where this will end up, no one knows, but the question for governments, business and civil society is already clear: do they have the courage and imagination to work out new answers in partnership together, or only a mindset that sees a new space to be fought over for their own power and profit? The stakes are very high.

*Michael Edwards is the author of Future Positive and co-editor of Global Citizen Action. He is a director of the Ford Foundation but writes here in a personal capacity

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