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Thoughts on the occasion of the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) and the UN’s forthcoming 75th birthday

Adopting the new Sustainable Development Goals in September, 2015 in New York. Stuart Ramson / Press Association. All rights reserved.Next week the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) opens in New York. In four years the UN will be 75 years old. Are we governing globalization properly?

The driving goal for the design of the UN was to prevent another war between major powers, to avoid another Depression and to not replicate the League of Nations. By the time the UN Charter was adopted these concerns were not equally important – only the Security Council dealing with war and peace was given mandatory authority. Subsequently the Bretton Woods agreements, which removed core economic issues from the United Nations agenda, gave de facto mandatory authority to the Executive Directors and Executive Boards of Bretton Woods institutions (BWIs). Over the decades, the major aspirations of the international community shifted. As new global aspirations were identified, new, largely autonomous institutions were created without the equivalent mandatory authority in their designated areas [i].

As each generation recognized that the global governance system was not keeping up with the needs of the world, there were regular reform efforts. The agreement to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development with the HLPF, the efforts to ‘reform’ the Security Council, and the campaigns to adjust the proportional voting system at the IMF are all part of this tradition. 

After nearly 75 years, the United Nation system faces quite serious external and internal challenges. The viability of multilateralism is threatened by the introduction of multistakeholder governance arrangements, particularly as decision-making system of choice for new and complex issues. The UN system is regularly de-legitimized by leading multinational corporations, business trade associations, international media, and right-of-center parliamentarians, weakening further the UN system’s ability to respond to new global crises. The stability of international rule of law is being replaced by ad hoc volunteerism in rule making and rule enforcement. [ii]

And internally at any UN system meeting, one hears critiques in the UN coffee bars of the whole UN system’s ineffectiveness, inefficiency, maladministration and general organizational impotence. As Governments for decades have been unwilling to seriously fund the core operating budgets, an increasing share of UN system activities are determined by special purpose donations by Governments, foundations, and multinational corporations.

Even when delegates attend to environmental, social, gender, and economic issues, old practices hinder effective management of globalization. “Consensus decision making” is used regularly for resolutions in these four areas. However the practice has become one of requiring unanimous decision-making, a standard that no national parliamentary body has. In parliaments, representatives vote and the majority position prevails. Not so at the international level: unanimous decision-making prevails and precludes taking a strong stand on an international issue that any one country, usually an OECD country, objects to.

At any gathering of IR scholars, the starting point for their analysis is more often than not that the UN is a structural failure. A current example of these issues is the HLPF and the Sustainable Development Goals – it is simply not possible to govern globalization with an eight day session that lacks meaningful decision-making power over a very broad collection of goals that Governments will not commit to financing.

At 75: learning lessons

For the United Nations’ 75th birthday and the current HLPF session, it would be a good time to consider what the UN system should look like to govern globalization, drawing on the lessons learnt since 1945.

What if one could complement the proliferation of complaints about the limitations of the post WWII institutions with a proliferation of ideas for what international governance post globalization ought to look like?

Or put in another way what are the current aspirations expected from the international community, what are the current powerful forces that need to be accommodated, and what are the democratic options for a world with nine billion people, tens of thousands of multinational corporations, and millions of civil society organizations. As with the 1943-1944 discussions that lead to the UN and BWIs[iii], thinking about the way to balance goals, governance, institutions, and power takes a good deal of time and intellectual creativity.

In some ways, the challenge facing leaders in earlier generations was easier than it is now. At the end of the 1940s there was only one strong military and economic power, not a multipolar world with hundreds of economic bodies and military alliances. The League of Nations had truly collapsed not just, as some contemporary critics say, like the UN system, only collapsing. In 1940s thru the 1980s, Governments were the only formal actors in global governance.  Clearly this is no longer the case. MNCs are clearly major actors in global governance and, in the view of many, have eclipsed nation-states in power and ability to manage globalization. And some international civil society organizations too have become major actors in global governance, setting key aspects of the global agenda and defining rules of the market in a number of spheres. The net effect is that Governments thru the multilateral system have largely stepped back from even attempting to govern globalization, even though economic, social, environmental, and gender issues are at the center of almost all major international crisis.

In a 2010 World Economic Forum report[iv], Davos argued in effect that for major global issues, Government-centric governance approach should just be replaced by a corporate-led multi-stakeholder-centric governance system.[v]  Some others in civil society and Government make an alternative argument - MNC engagement in global governance is one of the key stumbling blocks to a more democratic and effective global governance system.

Re-visioning a democratic global governance system today is indeed a daunting challenge. Without a coherent counter-strategy, a Davos-type multi-stakeholder governance system will increasingly displace multilateralism and, as a consequence, move global governance further and further away from a democratic model.

To rebuild a United Nations system, one option would be to reverse this trend toward multistakeholder governance and give economic, environmental, social and gender decision-making the same legal mandatory status as in decision-making in the Security Council. Following the Mexican, Asian, and 2009 financial crises, a number of Northern Government leaders and independent experts called for upgrading the Economic and Social Council into an Economic Security Council. This option is built on a similar rationale, but it goes a step further in institutionalising not just economic security matters but also the security aspects of social, environmental, and gender issues.

As with the Security Council and the Executive Boards of the BWIs, not all decisions rise to the level of obligations on member states. Most in fact do not. When there is an obligatory decision before these bodies, special rules come into play. In a similar manner, decisions and resolutions of the General Assembly dealing with cutting edge social, gender, environmental, or economic matter could be adopted through special procedures, such as adoption by a supermajority or adoption in two consecutive sessions.

UN Charter revision

UN Charter revision is an unusual process. It has mostly been ‘revised’ not by the formal amendment process, as laid out in the Charter, but a process called ‘charter modification by practice’. One good example of this modification-by-practice is that two veto-members of the Security Council named in the Charter no longer exist, the Republic of China and the USSR. When reality demanded it, they were simply replaced by the People’s Republic of China and Russia without any formal Charter amendment.  Were the General Assembly to treat resolutions on these four sectors that were adopted by a supermajority or in two consecutive sessions differently, it could build into a practice where these resolutions had enhanced obligations on Governments.

What types of actions might move in the direction of change through the charter-by-practice to establish a mandatory capacity for Government decisions in the economic, social, environmental, and gender areas? Governments could:

  • re-adopt the SDGs with means of an implementation section that captures a high level of governmental commitment;
  • welcome the President of the General Assembly to invite the Presidents and Chairs, rather than senior secretariat officers, of the other intergovernmental bodies to present their social, environmental, gender, and economic plans to the General Assembly;
  • address in UN system resolutions explicit guidance to all actors in the global governance arena, not just to the Secretariats and Governments;
  • ask the governing bodies of the specialized agencies, programmes, and commissions to propose vital global issues that ought to be considered by the General Assembly under its move toward obligatory decisions; and
  • authorize obligatory supplemental funding rules, similar to those operating for Security Council decisions, whenever the Assembly adopts required global action.

None of these changes require a formal change to the UN Charter.

Democratic proposals

Reform of the current structure of global governance will not come enthusiastically or voluntarily from ministries of foreign affairs or from within the UN system. Changing the current institutionalization of voluntarism and the formal engagement of MNCs in the international system can however evolve from a number of different directions. First, a shock on the order of magnitude of an economic depression, global ecological crisis, or a war can prompt rethinking of the institutional arrangements for the intergovernmental system. As noted earlier, key heads of state and high officials from OECD countries were calling for a new Bretton Woods type conference after the start of 2008/2009 crisis.

Second, it could evolve from citizen campaigns and social movements that insist on a completely new institutional arrangement to counter corporate influence in global decision-making.

And third, it may be provoked by the exposes of egregious multinational corporations overstepping appropriate bounds, say by campaigning for a specific new Secretary-General, such that those committed to multilateralism recognize that they need new allies to counter-balance the advance of multinational corporations and multi-stakeholder governance groups in global governance.

Whatever direction the pressure comes from, a package of democratic alternative proposals needs to be well formulated well in advance. The current session of the HLPF may well convince some Governments that non-binding, non-financially supported, and vague resolutions are simply not the way to govern globalization.

The 75th anniversary of the UN then might become one good target date for starting to change the UN system. As a result of the last financial crises, one corporate-centric body prepared recommendations on how they would want the next system of global governance to operate.[vi] Those whose focus is more clearly on democracy, equity, and environmental, social, gender, and economic security need independently to design a different system.


[i] The exception is the creation of the mandatory Dispute Resolution Panels at the WTO.

Outside the multilateral system, there is a second exception. Most bilateral investment treaties (BITs) give foreign investors access to mandatory arbitration panels whenever the foreign investor perceives that an action by a government has reduced its potential net income. 

[ii] Two recent examples of volunteerism in global governance ; (1) The recent climate COP agreement is fundamentally a voluntary implementation agreement and (2) participants in multi-stakeholder governance arrangements can enter and exit whenever it seems most appropriate to a particular stakeholder.

[iii] As well as the founding meetings for all the other existing international organizations

[iv] Everybody’s Business: Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World , 2010, World Economic Forum, Geneva  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GRI_StrengtheningInternationalCooperation_Book_2010.pdf. 

[v] Harris Gleckman, Readers’ Guide : Global Redesign Initiative, website of the Center for Governance and Sustainability, UMass-Boston, www.umb.edu/gri, accessed April 5, 2016

[vi] Everybody’s Business, op cit 

About the author

Harris Gleckman is Senior Fellow at the Center for Governance and Sustainability, UMass-Boston and Director of Benchmark Environmental Consulting.

He is the former Chief of the NY Office of UNCTAD, Senior Officer for the first Financing for Development Conference, and Chief of the Environmental Unit of the Centre on Transnational Corporations. Over a period of 30 years, he undertook policy oriented research on multinational corporations, global environmental management, financing for development, global governance institutions, and the economics of climate change. He is currently working on a handbook on the governance of multistakeholderism.


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