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Rethinking International Institutions

22 Nov 2013

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Writing for Project Syndicate, Pascal Lamy and Ian Goldin set out their argument for a comprehensive review of international institutions, following the publication of Now for the Long Term, the report of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations.

When the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions were established nearly seven decades ago in the aftermath of World War II, economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a few “victor” countries, making it relatively easy to reach consensus on how to restore international order. But, since then, global governance has become increasingly muddled, impeding progress in areas of worldwide concern.

Not only do more than 190 countries now belong to the UN; publicly funded international institutions have proliferated, with not one multilateral institution having been shuttered since WWII. The result is an inefficient and confusing amalgam of overlapping mandates.

Meanwhile, significant portions of the international system lack sufficient funding to deliver meaningful progress in critical areas – a problem that will only worsen as the needs and expectations of an ever-expanding global population grow. In this context, progress on global issues like climate change, cybercrime, income inequality, and the chronic burden of disease are proving elusive.

To be sure, the efforts of many publicly funded bodies have a real and lasting positive impact on the world. Indeed, international institutions have spearheaded breakthroughs in a wide range of areas, including health, finance, economics, human rights, and peacekeeping. But such institutions are largely perceived as inaccessible, inefficient, and opaque, leading national governments to neglect them. As their legitimacy and funding diminish, so does their effectiveness.

Overcoming twenty-first-century challenges will require a comprehensive review and renewal of international institutions. In its report Now for the Long Term, the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations – a group of experienced leaders and scholars (including us) convened to help formulate responses to global challenges – proposes mechanisms for undertaking this process.

For example, embedding sunset clauses in the governance structures of publicly funded international institutions would ensure regular reviews of organizational performance and purpose. Institutions that have fulfilled their mandate or proved unable to respond effectively to changing demands should be shuttered, and their resources redirected to more productive endeavors.

In order to escape that fate, existing institutions must adapt to shifting global power dynamics. This means increasing representation not only for the major emerging economies, such as China, India, and Brazil, but also for countries like Nigeria and Indonesia, which together are home to more than 400 million people.

International affairs and international organizations largely operate under mid-twentieth-century arrangements, which has two serious shortcomings. First, countries with a diminishing stake retain disproportionate power. Second, global decision-making now involves four times as many countries as it did in the immediate post-war era, not to mention a plethora of non-governmental organizations and civil-society groups, making for a messy – and often unproductive – process.

With the world’s problems becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, global decision-making processes must be as streamlined and efficient as possible. When numerous committees meet in parallel, the countries with the largest teams of experts dominate proceedings, effectively locking most countries out of key decisions and impeding meaningful dialogue.

In order to increase the productivity of global negotiations, the Oxford Martin Commission recommends creating coalitions of motivated countries, together with other actors, such as cities and businesses. As outcomes improve, international bodies’ legitimacy would be strengthened, which over time would enhance countries’ willingness to delegate powers to them.

Moreover, the commission proposes creating voluntary platforms to facilitate the creation of global treaties in vital areas. For example, a taxation and regulatory exchange would help countries to tackle tax avoidance and harmonize corporate taxation, while promoting information sharing and cooperation. Likewise, a cyber-security data-sharing platform could prove vital to understanding, preventing, and responding to cyber attacks.

As governments learn to collaborate with one another and with other actors, such as businesses and civil-society groups, faith in the power of international cooperation would be restored. In such an environment, breaking the gridlock on urgent global issues would be far easier than it has become in the current atmosphere of disillusionment and mistrust.

The simple fact is that with interconnectedness comes interdependence. In order to protect the global commons, world leaders must pursue shared solutions as inclusively and efficiently as possible – a process that can be accomplished only through international institutions. Failure to do so would threaten the tremendous progress that globalization has facilitated in recent decades.

The necessary changes will not happen overnight. But if governments, businesses, and civil society work together, they are feasible – promising a more sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous future for all.


This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.