Crafting the agenda for the 21st century

Over the last decade in particular, there has been much talk about the role of non-governmental organisations and their influence on politics and policymaking, but also on business strategies. Are these NGOs “friend or foe”? The answer to that is largely up to governments.

Who is in charge, governments or corporations? And where are they taking us? One of the clear messages to emerge from the “anti-globalisation” protests over recent years has been a concern that elected governments have effectively abdicated to the private sector their responsibility for the welfare of both people and planet. With the gap growing between the rhetoric of globalisation – that the market would provide more wealth for more people – and the reality that there is more wealth for some people but deeper economic and environmental poverty, citizens’ groups feel justified in asking whether their governments have got the policy balance right.

This concern has been amplified by confusion. How was the public supposed to react to Head of State commitments to environmentally-sustainable development at the Earth Summits of 1992 and 1997, while witnessing ministers at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other key bodies apparently pursuing a contradictory “business as usual” agenda? Academics, NGOs and even businesses began to refer to the existence of a “democratic deficit” and “governance gap”. The perceived “democratic deficit” stems from the fact that there is no elected body overseeing the globalisation process. All intergovernmental organisations, including the UN General Assembly, are accountable only to officials representing them. The “governance gap” comprises an information gap, where governments appear either to ignore or to lack crucial information; a policy gap, where policies and institutions fail to address key problems effectively; and, perhaps most alarming, an implementation gap, where words – and even treaty commitments – are not matched by action.

NGOs are “non-government”. They don’t want to remove or replace government, but – like the public – they want it to work better. The public wants, and needs, governments to take the lead in making good decisions. This means not only that they set clear goals and consistent policies, but also that they ensure these are grounded in the concerns and challenges which we all face. The trouble is that governments are not seen to be responding effectively to pressing environmental and other global problems. Hence the exponential rise in both the number and energy levels of advocacy organisations during the 1990s. The Internet may well have helped to catalyse the civil society movement, but it did not cause it. Governments, or rather governments’ failures, did.

NGOs tend to be not-for-profit advocacy groups. They play, variously, the roles of conscience, whistle-blower and weather vane in society. They exist mainly because there is a belief that important principles or information are being overlooked or ignored by governments. NGOs do not want to make decisions. That is government’s role. But, in the important process of democracy, they do want to help with decision-shaping and to be involved on terms at least as favourable as those extended (sometimes corruptly) to the business community. This, surely, would make a healthier body politic.

Fuzzy structure

Consider these questions:

• “Where are the important decisions on the long-term direction of the planet made? The G8? The United Nations? The World Bank? The WTO?”

• “Which international organisation is responsible for driving policy on clean energy, fresh water and re-forestation?”

Unfortunately, even an expert in public international law would be hard-pressed to respond briefly to these basic questions. The fact is that the current international policy-making structure is unclear. It resembles a computer-wiring diagram more than a highly functional piece of institutional architecture. Not only is it hard to know where decisions are taken, it’s often difficult for experts to know who does what, and where. This is hardly a situation to instill public confidence, much less inspire creative civil society input.

Efficiency is one victim of this hotchpotch. Transparency is another. And it is not always the fault of the organisations. Over the past 50 years, governments have created a proliferation of taxpayer-funded bodies with often overlapping mandates. According to UN sources, there are more than 40 intergovernmental bodies with forest-related responsibilities, and nearly 20 international treaties concerning forests. While some coordination effects are now in train, such as the UN Forum on Forests (UNFF), the fact remains that the world’s ancient forest cover and diversity is still declining at an alarming rate (see article by E.O. Wilson).

Coordination will not be enough without bold restructuring. If clean food, water, energy, habitat and transportation are among our chief goals, where are the organisations to realise them? How can civil society be better involved?

One major problem is history. Many of our most prominent international bodies – the UN and the OECD among them – were built on the rubble of the Second World War. While the ideals of these organisations remain sound, sometimes they suffer from “reality lag”; they deal with yesterday’s problems today. They must bring their agendas up to date, as well as improve them.

On the environment, there is a sense that governments have lost their way. They seem unable or unwilling to move out of the “business as usual” approach to economics which is hampering progress to real sustainable development initiatives. Security from potentially catastrophic environmental threats is either inadequately funded or “left to the market”.

The OECD has a particular responsibility because it groups the richest countries together. In the run- up to the World Sustainable Development Summit in South Africa in 2002, there is increasing alarm that unless the OECD grasps the nettle of these problems, the summit will fizzle into waffle and meaningless rhetoric. Some groups are calling for a “New Global Deal”, whose elements might include the OECD governments taking the initiative to:

• Meet outstanding pledges to increase flows of finance and technology to the South and to extend the cancellation of debt;

• Expand trade access for Southern producers to Northern markets (see article by Mike Moore);

• Increase the South’s role in global governance (whether in the UN, international financial or trade institutions); and

• Implement existing domestic environmental commitments.

There is some cause for optimism. The OECD is working on policies to enhance sustainable development and is identifying many of the options, like tax reform and the elimination of subsidies that encourage pollution. This work could form the nucleus of a new and inspiring political commitment on sustainable development and could improve the chances of success at Johannesburg.

Problem solving

Most NGOs are formed to win clear goals. Problem identification is the first order of business. Some, like Greenpeace, have a history of offering policy and technological solutions. To many dialogue is still seen as the slippery slope to compromise. Increasingly, however, some NGOs have been be-hind the emergence of so-called “multi-stakeholder dialogues” and global public policy networks. These constructive bodies – well described in the book Critical Choices – The United Nations, Networks, and the Future of Global Governance – represent creative attempts by groupings of business, NGOs and sometimes governmental bodies to make progress on pressing issues. The recent World Economic Forum high-level meeting between the automobile industry, Greenpeace International, WWF and UNEP, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI – see article) and the OECD’s annual Forum reflect this trend.

Traditionally, international decision-shaping gatherings have been adversarial, useful for spotting problems, but not solutions. Multi-stakeholder processes, still relatively new, offer the opportunity of converting vicious circles into virtuous ones, by committing a wide field of expertise to finding solutions to specific challenges. Such processes could become cost-effective, innovative means of assisting governments. After all, business increasingly values multi-stakeholder approaches, as well as bilateral NGO contact. One thing is sure. Non-economists (which means most of us) and, it seems, an increasing number of economists, are having trouble buying into the proposition that more economic growth is the answer to the challenge of greater welfare for all. Their scepticism cannot simply be brushed aside.

Whatever promise the “new” economy offers, the reality is that the “old” economy cannot assure a sustainable future. Put bluntly, time is up for the industrial economic model largely invented by the OECD. We simply do not have enough planets to sustain it and cannot export it further.

But in change there is opportunity. The world urgently needs a concerted, coordinated and credible set of policies that will deliver sustainability within a generation. The OECD must show that leadership, not least for its own survival and continued relevance. The OECD can secure its legacy in the 21st century by embracing the sustainability agenda. It can do so by changing, as it has done once before (from the OEEC). It is time for it to become the OCSD – the Organisation for Cooperation on Sustainable Development.

*Paul Hohnen is a former diplomat who worked for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and served in the Australian mission to the OECD.


• Reinicke, W.H., Deng, F., et al. (eds), Critical Choices: The United Nations, Networks, and the Future of Global Governance, IDRC, 2000.

©OECD Observer No 226/227, Summer 2001 

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