Can we find better ways of governing our planet? Is the present system inadequate for tackling the world’s problems with the urgency, purpose and focus that they demand? What new system could be devised? What are the most pressing global issues and how can they be dealt with? And why would any new set-up stand any better chance of success than what we already have? By Jean-François Rischard –

Forget globalization. Instead of one mushy, ill-defined force, there are two big forces that will bring dramatic change to every corner of the globe over the next 20 years. The first is demographics. As our numbers rise – on an already overpopulated planet – from 5 billion people 10 years ago to 8 billion by 2025, a whole array of environmental and social stresses will come into play.

The second force is an entirely new world economy, which is itself driven by two revolutions – a barely begun technological revolution centred on increasingly inexpensive telecommunications and computer technologies, and an economic revolution which comes from virtually all countries adopting market-type economic models. This second force produces both unprecedented opportunities and unprecedented stresses.

The two forces are exponential in their progression, not linear. The demographic force produces scarcity – an exponentially developing scarcity of arable land, water, soil, space, living species and so on.

The new world economy force produces plenty, which also develops exponentially – the power of computer chips is said to double every couple of years, according to Moore’s law.

Because of their exponential shape and the “fast time” that characterizes them, the two forces tend to overwhelm our human institutions, which are still evolving in linear fashion. The time frame of our institutions is more that of “bureaucratic time”: governments, government departments, international institutions – these are all large, hierarchical entities still steeped in the industrial age.

The governance gap that results manifests itself in many ways – financial crises, voters who no longer trust their politicians to solve today’s problems, and a bad mood in political life all over the world.

But the worst effect of the governance gap is the failure to focus on the most urgent global problems.

Time for action

On our increasingly small and interconnected planet, such global problems cannot be solved within any one nation-state. They call for collective and collaborative action – something that the nations of the world have never been good at.

There are about 20 such global problems, and they fall into three categories – how we share our living space, how we share our rulebook and how we share our humanity. They all need solving in the next 20 years – not the next 30, 40, or 50 years. These problems are set out in the box at right.

The current international system is simply not effective enough – or fast enough – to solve these problems. Treaties are slow and often not enforced; big UN conferences are good at raising awareness but fail to produce detailed solutions; G8-type groupings achieve a lot but are mostly reactive; and the world’s 45-odd international institutions, while they do many useful things, are not in a position to grab one or several of the 20 problems and solve them on their own.

Yet we cannot just set up a new “world government” to focus on this list of 20. Even if we could, it would take more than 20 years to do it. So the best alternative is to establish what I shall call a Global Issues Network (GIN) for each problem.

These networks would be permanent and would each be kick-started by one of the international institutions acting purely as a facilitator, not as a problem-solver.

The GINs’ membership would include representatives of governments concerned by and experienced in the issue at hand, as well as knowledgeable people from business (whether business is part of the problem or part of the solution) and representatives of international nongovernmental organizations that also know the issue well.

These GINs, whose creation would mark the appearance of trisector partnerships in global problem solving, would take the problem apart and search for solutions. They would then draw up detailed norms and standards that could be used to coax the various players in the direction of solving the problem for the world at large.

Naming and shaming

Indeed, having set out the standards decided upon, the GINs would then act as rating agencies with the job of exposing countries, businesses and other players that were not conforming. For example, they would regularly “name and shame” governments that had either not passed legislation conforming to the standards or had not ratified or enforced a perfectly useful treaty.

Such “naming and shaming” can be quite persuasive. A group called the Financial Action Task Force exposed 15 countries for tolerating money laundering. Two years later, about half of these countries had passed legislation so as to get off the list.

Even though the GINs would not legislate, their moral authority and systematic use of the “naming and shaming” technique could move nations directly or through their voters and public opinion. They could also persuade companies and other players to abide by global standards.

These new networks would not replace the existing international system, let alone the nation-states, but rather would put them under pressure to perform faster and more effectively – that is, with a greater sense of global citizenship than is the case today.

This is better than trying to redesign the entire international set-up, which would take something we do not have – a lot of time.

If such a new global governance model were to emerge, businesses would have an entirely new role to play – the role of partner in global problem solving.

This kind of engagement by businesses and their executives would be the last of four stages in the process of increasing corporate engagement.

In the first stage, some firms had small charity departments. Then, as some companies were attacked by NGOs for their labour or environmental practices, they started larger corporate responsibility departments. Originally defensive in the main, these then gradually became more proactive.

Next, some firms started to engage in development tasks directly. Networking specialist Cisco Systems is one example, with its networking academies in about 130 countries. The building materials firm Lafarge is another, contributing to the fight against Aids in Africa. There are many other examples.

The fourth stage in the process could involve business participation in global problem solving through something like the GINs.

Get ready for it, as it is unlikely that governments alone can deliver the solutions to tomorrow’s pressing problems.

Jean-François Rischard
Jean-François Rischard is the World Bank’s vice president for Europe. These views are his own, not those of any institution. He is the author of High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them (Basic Books, New York, 2002), which develops these ideas in greater detail.