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Prospects for Global Governance

24 November 2016
by Guest author

NAECRon Gass, former OECD Director, based on a paper prepared for today’s NAEC seminar on The Creative Society and Technology

A world society is emerging where nation states are dominant, but in a complex, multi-polar world in which the poles – including business, civil society, and multilateral agencies – are developing various forms of power through alliances and shared objectives (or even common enemies). In the global system that is emerging, economic growth and the technological advances that underpin it have to be geared to meet human ends. Global governance has to be built on three pillars which reflect this complexity: political vision; realistic goals; and operational strategies.

This is the sense of the UN Human Development approach, the OECD Better Life Initiative, and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda to which the G20 Hangzhou consensus lends support. Is the vision of global leadership as expressed by these bodies adequate to steer the world community out of the enduring crisis?

The 2030 Agenda implies a new relationship between the economy, nature, and society, and as such it has caught the mainstream political parties off balance. The Right is mainly on the economic leg; the Left on the social leg; the Greens on the ecological leg. The result is that the policy-making institutions, politically neutral, have a special responsibility. The OECD, in the nascent coalition of multi-lateral agencies, has the advantage of having pioneered its triangular policy paradigm almost since its foundation. This is now becoming a tripod, with governance at its apex.

The heart of the policy problem is that the economic, social and ecological systems have different logics. This means that policy coherence is both increasingly important and increasingly difficult. It has to be sought at all levels of decision-making, right down to cities and local communities where it is easier to achieve concertation between the stakeholders. At the level of the macro debate, policy coherence is complicated by the fact that the policy sciences are, by their very nature, silos. Economic, ecological, and social theory do not readily mix. Policy-makers can only get at the massive structural problems of today by systemic reforms which cross the boundaries of ministerial departments and the policy sciences. That is why systems thinking is needed for policy coherence.

This mutation in policy-making will not succeed if it remains the affair of a policy-making elite. Already, something like a popular movement appears to be building up. Way ahead of the policy-makers and the academics, people in cities, towns, and villages across the world are responding to the sustainability movement. For necessity is the mother of invention – as reflected in protest movements to avert climate disaster and to resist expropriation from historic “commons”.

Given the complexity of the goals of global governance, the leadership needs to explore the implications of alternative scenarios (futures) as a guide to today’s decisions. In that sense it has a pedagogical role, even rhetorical, since it engages in a “conversation” in and around possible decisions. Given the turbulence of the geo-political and geo-economic scene, its role is likely to become more important as predicting the future becomes more difficult while creating it becomes more necessary. And faced with the complex web of interactions between the SDGs, the context in which policies are formulated is vital. Success will depend on the extent to which, for example, “centres of government” are willing to collaborate.

There are two consequences. First, certain “chunks” of the SDG map are forced onto the policy agenda by the geo-political and geo-economic context. This is the case of the impressive commitments made at the G20 Hangzhou Summit, for example with regard to “a globally fair and modern international tax system”, green financing, energy collaboration, climate, inclusive and interconnected development, and illicit financial flows.

The second contextual reality is the need to pursue action in real-world decision-making contexts, national and sub-national. This is where the OECD can make a considerable contribution, because of its long-standing tradition of peer reviews, now extending down to the city, regional and local levels of public policy. The Multi-Dimensional Country Reviews of the OECD Development Centre are of particular interest in this regard.

Given the long and rocky road to the SDGs, regular monitoring of achievements and failures will be vital. This involves the publication of statistical indicators, an area in which the OECD has an important role to play. But more is at stake because sustainable development reflects a shift in opinion across the world. Policy-makers and citizens are in effect learning their way into the future, and emulation is an important stimulant for progress.

Progress is linked to security. After World War II, NATO and the OECD were the two arms of the Western strategy to provide security and prosperity. European economic and social progress was seen as the bulwark against Soviet communism, and the Marshall Plan was the instrument. Progress and security were thus linked. Today the progress-security nexus is quite different. The challenge of world progress – reconciling economy, nature and society – is much more complex. The security threats are more diffuse, ranging from nuclear conflict to climate change and terrorism.

The people of the world are now faced with living together on a finite planet, in an ever-expanding universe that they are beginning to explore. The fundamental challenge facing global governance is whether security risks and threats will undermine and overwhelm the immense power for progress that the new technological revolution brings. The SDGs can be part of the response if sustainable development, the Brundtland vision, becomes a popular movement. So too can the Hangzhou consensus, if the commitment of the major G20 powers to the SDGs extends to peace and security aspects of the UN 2030 Agenda.

The hope that this will be the case depends on whether, despite a certain amount of sabre rattling, a complementary force to economic interdependence is on the move. The great historical civilisations now appear to be embarked on a global process of convergence/competition. Interaction and mutual fertilisation in philosophy, culture, sport, education and travel are all everyday realities for the connected peoples of the world. On this fertile soil, a new global humanism could, in the long run, be the best shield against xenophobia, populism, and terrorism.

Useful links

The creative society and the new technological revolution Issues paper by Ron Gass

50 Years of reconciling the economy, nature and society Ron Gass, OECD Yearbook 2011

NAEC and the Sustainable Development Goals: The Way Forward Mathilde Mesnard, OECD Insights

It’s not just the economy: society is a complex system too Gabriela Ramos, OECD Insights

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