Can the world save the world?

Published : 12 Mar 2023 07:52 PM | Updated : 12 Mar 2023 07:52 PM

(Continued from last days section)

Enhancing coherence also means strengthening UN bodies such as the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which is responsible for reviewing and following up on the SDGs. “Compared to the Security Council or the Human Rights Council, the HLPF remains extremely weak,” he points out. “It meets only eight days per year. It has a small budget and no decision-making power.”

Some additional institutions are needed to fill global governance gaps, such as an Intergovernmental Tax Body under the auspices of the United Nations, that would ensure that all UN member states, and not only the rich, participate equally in the reform of global tax Rules. Another oft-cited recommendation would be an institution within the UN system independent of both creditors and debtors to facilitate debt restructuring.

All of this requires sufficient funding. Around $40 billion goes toward the development activities of UN agencies, Martens notes, “but far more than half of these funds are project-tied non-core resources mainly earmarked to favor individual donor priorities. That means mainly the priorities of rich donors.” UNEP, meanwhile, gets a mere $25 million from the regular UN budget, which is about $3 billion and doesn’t include separate assessments for activities like peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. More democratic funding would have the side benefit of shrinking reliance on foundations and corporate contributions, which “reduce the flexibility and autonomy of all UN organizations,” he concludes.

Addressing Multistakeholderism

One path that global institutions have taken to address the funding shortfall is “multistakeholderism.” As with corporations pushing for privatization at a national level with arguments about the inefficiencies of state enterprises or the bureaucratic state, the advocates of multistakeholder initiatives (MSI) point to the failures of global public institutions to tackle common problems as a reason for greater corporate involvement. In effect, this boils down to large corporations buying more seats at the table for themselves.

Madhuresh Kumar has produced a recent book with Mary Ann Manahan that looks at how multistakeholderism has evolved in five key sectors: education, health, environment, agriculture, and communications. In the forestry sector, for instance, they looked at initiatives like the Tropical Forest Alliance, the Global Commons Alliance, and the Forest for Life Partnership. “We found that in their first decade, the initiatives primarily established the problem by arguing that the multilateral institutions are failing and that’s why we need solutions,” he reports. With the rise in global demand for raw materials, particularly in the context of a “green economy,” there was also greater demand to regulate the industries. The corporate sector responded with initiatives that emphasized “responsible” mining, forestry, and the like.

According to this logic, nature can be priced according to various “ecosystem services.” He continues: “Seventeen ecosystem services have been identified along with 16 biomes. Together they have an estimated value of $16-54 trillion. If they can be unlocked, the idea is that this money can be put toward solving the climate crisis. But we won’t see that money. Ultimately, what rolls out on the ground won’t help our communities.”

Not only nature is commodified but knowledge itself, for instance through intellectual property rights. “Increasingly, we have a reinforcement of very rigid rules and very rigid systems that lead to the concentration of knowledge and to large corporations appropriating traditional knowledge,” notes Jayati Ghosh.

Another essential part of MSI is the focus on technical fixes, like carbon capture technology, geoengineering, and various forms of hydrogen energy. “These divert a lot of attention from climate justice,” Kumar notes. “It is also having an impact on indigenous communities. For instance, the One Trillion Trees Initiative that the UN backs is promoting a monoculture, the destruction of biodiversity, and the eviction of indigenous communities and many others.”

In addition to corporations, large NGOs like World Wildlife Fund, and major funders like Michael Bloomberg, Kumar notes that “the UN has been a willing participant in all of this. Sustainable Energy for All, which is another MSI, was started by former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in 2011 as a response to a statement made by a group of countries. But Sustainable Energy for All later acquired an independent status of its own over which the UN has no control. The UN General Assembly plays an important role in shaping the agenda and setting standards. But then these institutions, like the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership that was initially backed by UNIDO, later go out on their own, become unaccountable, and fall into the lap of corporations.”

Developing countries have long demanded a reform of the governance of these IFIs. “The voting rights were originally allocated on the basis of a country’s share of the global economy and of global trade,” reports Jayati Ghosh. “But this was done based on the data of the 1940s, and the world has changed dramatically since then. Developing countries have significantly increased their share of both, and certain countries are much more significant while a number of European countries are much less significant.” 

If the rich countries won’t give up their power voluntarily, they’ll have to be pushed to do so. “I have to confess: I’m saddened by the lack of public outcry,” Ghosh adds. “Even in the very progressive state of Massachusetts, where I’m teaching, people couldn’t be bothered with this. Similarly, in Europe. People’s movements need to point out how this is against not just the interests of the developing world, it’s against the enlightened self-interest of people in the rich countries as well.”

A similar problem applies to the power of the rich within countries. “There’s a need for tax justice at the global level, and not only with the rich countries with all governments involved in setting the tax rules, especially from the global south,” Jens Martens says. “We have a tax system with the highest rates much below what we had in the 1970s or even the 1980s. The international community recently established a minimum tax of 15 percent for transnational corporations: this is a very minor first step at the global level.”

“We had suggested 25 percent,” Jayati Ghosh adds, “which is the median of corporate tax rates globally. But it isn’t just increased tax rates. It’s important to emphasize redistribution. Regulatory processes have dramatically increased the profit share of large companies. Before we get to taxation, we have to look at the reasons they’re able to have these very high profits. We allow them to profiteer during periods of scarcity or assumed scarcity. We allow them to repress workers’ wages. We allow them to grab rents in different ways. So, we need a combination of regulation and taxation to rein in large capital and to make sure that the benefits ultimately produced by workers come back to workers and society as a whole.”

“In the last decade of the twentieth century, we managed to make these corporations villains,” points out Madhuresh Kumar. “But today they are not seen as the villains. Governments in the global North and in the South have given them a platform. There is muted celebration if we are able to shift these corporations toward providing more renewable energy, which they have done by diversifying. But if we can’t shift the power imbalance, we won’t achieve any equality in global governance, in the financial architecture, or anywhere.”

Where Does Change Come From?

In March 2022, Jayati Ghosh was named to a new High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism created by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The dozen board members come from different countries and perspectives.

“We have to have a bit of a reality check on what commissions and advisory boards can achieve,” Ghosh points out. “We can advise. We can say this is what we think should happen, this is how we believe the international financial architecture must be changed. Everything else really depends on political will, which is not just governments suddenly seeing the light and becoming good. Political will is when governments are forced to respond to the people. Until that happens, we’re not going to get change no matter how many high-level boards and commissions come up with excellent recommendations that we can all agree with.”

After the 2008-9 global financial crisis, former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz headed up a UN-created commission. “It came up with some really fine recommendations, which are still valid,” Ghosh recalls. “But they were not implemented. They were not even considered. I don’t know if anyone at the IFIs even bothered to read that whole report.”

Multistakeholderism has elevated the status of corporations in high-level climate negotiations. But this is precisely the wrong strategy. “When the World Health Organization negotiated the Tobacco Control Convention, they decided to exclude lobbyists from the tobacco companies from the negotiations,” Jens Martens points out. “In the end they agreed to a quite strong convention, which is now in place. Why can’t we convince our governments to exclude fossil fuel lobbyists from negotiations in the climate sphere because there’s a conflict of interest?”

In the end, Martens is not so pessimistic: “I see a lot of social movements occurring in the last couple years as a counter-reaction to nationalism and the inactivity of our governments: Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter. It’s very necessary to put pressure on our governments, because they only respond to pressure from below.”

Jayati Ghosh sees some positive momentum, particularly around the growing trend of acknowledging the rights of nature. “Ecuador and Bolivia included the rights of Mother Earth in their constitutions,” she reports. “But there’s also a movement of civil society groups fighting for the rights of nature in many countries including Germany. If nature is a subject by law, then we can have better instruments to protect nature. We also have discussions at the global level about alternatives to GDP that focus on well-being.”

 “Can the world save the world?” she asks. “Yes, the world can save the world. Will the world save the world? No, not at the current rate. Not unless people actually rise up and make sure that their governments act.”


John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared. 

Source: CounterPunch