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The UN, People & Politics

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Global Rules, Local Rulers
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A discussion paper analyses how connected citizens feel they are to the international institutions that regulate trade and economic activity, and argues that both NGOs and international institutions need to engage more actively in domestic economic debate in the current challenging climate. Authored by Jim Metcalfe.

Link to full report: Global Rules, Local Rulers: NGOs, intergovernmental organisations, and public economic debate [PDF]

25th October 2012 - Published by the Carnegie Trust

In 2012, the Trust is leading a new project that examines the inter-relationships between UK advocacy groups, citizens, and the Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) that regulate trade, markets and consumer policy.

IGOs are cross-border institutions that influence many areas of economic life, from freight standardisation to product labelling, bank inter-lending to environmental protection.

Economic IGOs have increased in number and size since the Second World War to meet new regulatory and public policy challenges created by the increasing technical sophistication of global markets.

Governance structures in the IGO environment are reserved to nation state actors, and often reflect delicate balances of power between different global economic blocs. The role of the citizen-consumer in dialogue with IGOs is predominantly mediated through voluntary sector organisations.

Many UK charities, advocacy groups, research and consumer organisations seek to influence the IGO environment. Some are highly successful, and internationally recognised as global civil society leaders.

The Trust has undertaken a research study of this theme, using the World Trade Organisation as a test case. As the newest of the major economic IGOs, and with a complex history of civil society engagement, the Trust has commissioned primary research within the UK to gauge citizen attitudes to the WTO and its operations.

A discussion paper on 'Global Rules, Local Rulers' is now available for download. We welcome feedback and contributions to this paper, and particularly the '10 Questions' it presents on Page 28.

Link to original source

Report Summary 

June 2012

Citizens depend on rigorous public debate to both understand and regulate the operation of international economic policy. The world of intergovernmental institutions, trade negotiators and ministerial conferences can appear all too distant – and all too disconnected – without an ongoing public dialogue.

The creation of the World Trade Organisation in the mid-1990s provided a focal point for public discussion about globalisation, sustainable development, and the value of economic relationships beyond borders.

Nongovernmental organisations engaged forcefully with the new institution and its programme of negotiations through advocacy, technical advice, direct action and public communication.

This contributed to raising the profile of international trade issues around the world - British NGOs were at the forefront of this campaigning, often operating in complex international coalitions.

However, the challenges of a controversial policy agenda saw the WTO’s deliberations stall at the beginning of the new century. Developing world actors grew in power, whilst developed conomies lacked policy cohesion.

The international focus shifted away from trade-specific questions, and on to climate change, poverty alleviation, and later food and energy security.

Policy power drifted to other international institutions and bilateral arrangements. Domestic NGOs followed the trend, refocusing on new priorities. Expertise and resource commitments on intergovernmental trade and economic matters were scaled back or diffused.

This realignment of priorities weakened the nongovernmental community’s ability to tackle economic questions, exactly as the global financial crisis began to unfold.

Citizens feel increasingly disempowered by recent economic events, as well as finding them difficult to understand. International institutions tasked with finding solutions to the crisis are disconnected, and the instruments of good public dialogue are diminished or absent.

The WTO stimulated a powerful international debate between proponents and critics of trade liberalisation, in a way than no other international economic organisation had done before. NGOs were hugely important in electrifying this discussion, as was the media.

As the world now seeks to address system-wide challenges in the global economy, this paper asks: can international institutions and NGOs be supported to engage citizens more effectively in this complex public dialogue?

Link to original source [PDF]