Global Governance

In an early edition of the journal Global Governance, Lawrence Finkelstein (1995:368) rather boldly stated that “‘Global Governance’ appears to be virtually everything” and that “we say ‘governance’ because we really don’t know what to call what is going on”. Despite the wealth of literature and analysis that has since been dedicated to the topic, there remains little consensus as to what global governance is, but rather than a paucity of definitions, we are grappling with too many (Dingwerth and Pattberg 2006; Van Kersbergen and Van Waarden 2004). Today, global governance is at best “contested terrain”: a term that obscures more than it describes. (Woods 2007:28).

To help make sense of this multifarious concept, it is useful to begin by defining governance.  According to Thomas Weiss (2000:795), “[m]any academics and international practitioners employ ‘governance’ to connote a complex set of structures and processes, both public and private, while more popular writers tend to use it synonymously with ‘government’.” Similarly, Brown and Ainley (2009:129) explain that governance was originally synonymous with government, “has been pressed into service as a convenient term for the collective impact of the various disparate quasi-governmental institutions that have proliferated (internally and externally) over the last century or more” (see also Rosenau and Czempial 1992).

For Rosenau, what distinguishes government from governance are systems of rule. Government rule systems can be thought of as structures, where as governance rules through social functions or processes that can be performed in multiple ways and at different times and places by a wide range of organizations (Rosenau 2007:72).  Governance can thus take many forms as “rule systems acquire authority in a variety of ways” (Rosenau 2007:72). With governance then, a major issue becomes the exercise of authority, defined as the recognition of having the right to govern.

Tim Lang et al. (2009:75) contrast governance to government, explaining that “governance implies more indirect, softer forms of direction from the state than command and control, and reflects collaborative outcomes, involving a wide range of actors often from the private sector, as well as from government bureaucracy, as much as deliberate interventions by the state.” They (2009: 81) continue that governance is “an interactive process of state and public laws and policy with private interests and actors.”

In their book Governance and Performance: New Perspectives, Carolyn Heinrich and Laurence Lynn (2000:4) state that governance “implies an arrangement of distinct but interrelated elements – statues, including policy mandates; organizational, financial, and programmatic structures; resource levels; administrative rules and guidelines; and institutionalized rules and norms – that constrains and enables the tasks, priorities, and values that are incorporated into regulatory, service production, and service delivery processes.”

Defining Global Governance

The concept of global governance emerged alongside governance as a way of making sense of the rapid changes to global economic and political orders that often coincide and overlap with globalization. The term global governance is often criticized for immediately suggesting that governance is global in scope, and that the globe is in some way governed. In an attempt to avoid these limitations, scholars have forwarded other labels such as “polyarchy” (Brown 1995), “panarchy” (Sewell and Slater), “collibration” (Dunsire 1993), and “fragmentation” (Rosenau 1999), but none have been widely adopted. Furthermore, regardless of the limitations, there has been widespread interest in the subject, resulting in a large body of literature, some of it very useful for making sense of the changes happening in global food security policy. And, while I agree with Compagnon (in Overbeek et al. 2010) that “reflecting on global governance should not be a gratuitous and vain search for the ‘right’ definition: rather, it should become an exploration of the specific historical context – multidimensional globalization – in which it is nested”, it remains useful to clarify how the term is understood and applied.

To summarise then, governance broadly refers to the management functions of societies – formal and informal – that are generally focussed or coordinated around the state or government institutions but include diverse actors, including civil society and the private sector.  

One widely used but inadequate definition of global governance as observable phenomena was presented by the UN Commission on Global Governance in their report “Our Global Neighbourhood” (1995:7):

At the global level, governance has been viewed primarily as intergovernmental relationships, but it must now be understood as also involving nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), citizens’ movements, multinational corporations, and the global capital market. Interacting with these are global mass media of dramatically enlarged influence.

Similarly, Chris Brown and Kristen Ainley (2009:129) suggest that in the absence of a world government, due to the unwillingness of states to surrender their juridical status as sovereign, among other things, efforts at ruling and the exercise of political sovereignty has led to the creation of extensive networks of global governance. These definitions of global governance as observable phenomena suggest it to be a response to a globalizing world that brings together states and other actors to ensure world order and stability, promote cooperation and limit risk. Not unlike the above summary definition of governance.

Defining global governance as observable phenomena is important but the perhaps the real value of a global governance approach are the analytic components; or global governance as political programme. Ulrich Brand (2006:159) articulates important differences between predominantly analytical uses of global governance as a concept and more normative applications. He writes that the “analytical version uses the concept in order to understand the changing political structures and processes, whereas the normative contributions intend to sketch out the possibilities for desirable developments without taking into account systematically the limits.”

Henk Overbeek’s (2010:702) cautions that what is often referred to as global governance is in fact “neoliberal global governance, serving the freedom of capital to accumulate around the planet.” Indeed, the pursuit and maintenance of neoliberal hegemony is not absent from global food security governance, and in fact, is often a key motivating and rationalizing factor in world food security policy, arguably to the detriment of the eradication of hunger. Overbeek (2010), lamenting the loss of its initial reference to a radical restructuring of the global economic order, suggests that global governance is now applied as a reformist concept to accommodate the interests of neo-liberal globalization with only the most necessary reforms to keep the system running. He suggests that by presupposing common interests instead of questioning the existence of common interests and a willingness to work together, most definitions of global governance effectively depoliticize the debate about world order.

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