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Multilateralism

Better global governance

by Hans Dembowski

Opinion

Immunising a child in Sanaa, Yemen.

Immunising a child in Sanaa, Yemen.

“Post-2015 development agenda” is an awkward term. To understand it, one has to know that 2015 is the year the Millennium Development Goals are supposed to be achieved. That was the plan when the UN adopted them in 2000. Even though the vast majority of human beings is not aware of these dates, UN efforts to start a “post-2015” debate have created quite a buzz. All sorts of organisations and agencies have made suggestions on what a meaningful agenda beyond the MDGs could look like.

Such public attention is a bit ambiguous. It can raise expectations that are likely to remain unfulfilled. Humanity is facing huge challenges that nation states cannot tackle on their own. They include the stability of the financial architecture, food security, climate change and many others. To rise to these challenges, governments must not only act responsibly and competently within their borders, they must cooperate in an equally responsible and competent way multilaterally.  

In principle, we need something like a world constitution. The UN Security Council’s precious monopoly on sanctioning military action is an inkling of such a constitution. It has contributed to managing and containing some crises, though it has not been effective in preventing war altogether. The veto power of important constituents has often made the Council impotent.

Global agreements in other fields tend to be thwarted in similar ways. Negotiations are slow and can be easily obstructed since results depend on consensus rather than majority vote. Many treaties, moreover, lack an institution to enforce compliance. So far, global governance relies on participants’ good will – which tends to be in short supply when crucial interests are at stake.

Many non-governmental participants in the post-2015 debate express frustration. They are aware that, in two decades of multilateral policymaking on global warming, our climate is only changing faster. They understand that while food security has improved in statistical terms over the past 20 years, it has also become more precarious because of volatile commodity prices in the past five years. They know, moreover, that the first trend will exacerbate second. Civil-society activists all over the world want stringent global rules to solve problems once and for all.  

The MDGs, however, were never about stringent rules. Nor does what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s High-Level Panel recently proposed as an MDG-follow-up amount to some kind of world constitution. Binding rules are made in other UN settings, of which the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) is currently the most important. The reason is that global warming must be contained fast if other problems are not to spin out of control.

In this context, it is welcome that the High-Level Panel explicitly states that environmental sustainability is indispensable. It also tackles other issues that the MDGs did not mention such as decent employment, good governance and unjust inequality. The fact that eminent persons from many different countries agreed on this report proves that there is an informal international consensus on what needs to happen. No, the Panel report will not directly result in binding rules. But the good news is that its proposals are pointing in the right directions and will help to promote the cause of better global governance. That is not enough, but it is better than nothing.