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Governance for a Crowded Planet: The Need to Leap and to Innovate – Part II

Verena Fritz's picture

In last week’s blog I argued that to ensure survival on a crowded planet, technical solutions and their economic viability are important – but that changing governance at many levels is a key hinge for enabling societies across the globe to take the necessary decisions and to make the major adjustments that are needed. This week’s blog looks further at possible solutions.

An important domain for experimenting with better governance are cities. About 50 per cent of the world’s population is now living in cities, and 70 per cent are expected to do so by 2050. Air and water pollution are often concentrated in and around large urban centres. Improving governance of cities could make a huge contribution to addressing the challenges of a crowded planet.

Some have suggested that local elections in cities could be opened up to non-traditional candidates such as external management consultants, to provide voters with a greater choice of real alternatives, especially where local politics has become a morass of back-room deals involving all the major traditional political players (see Forbes: KPMG for Mayor!). Bogota and Medellin, two Colombian cities with a troubled history, are powerful examples that better governance can yield very substantial results in terms of improving social cohesion and lowering crime – and such kinds of governance ‘leaps’ can be the basis for achieving other collective goals such as reducing pollution as well. In both cities, the turnaround was led by mayors who came from outside traditional political circles.

One should not be naïve: experiments and individual successes are not easily scaled up, and there are often powerful political economy reasons why approaches such as Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting are not adopted more widely. Nonetheless, societies need to take responsibility for how their governments operate – locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Civil society organisations have become important actors in promoting policies and shaping the opinion of policy-makers as well as the wider public in ways that contribute to achieving better collective action. At the same time, it is important that social engagement is broadened beyond ‘classic NGOs’. Academics, business people, other public figures such as celebrities (with some nudging to get things right!) and innovative politicians, as well as ordinary people can play important roles in making this happen.

One proposition for achieving broader engagement is to teach some basics of governance in schools. This could be a way to give all citizens a basic introduction to public budgeting and to how public regulation works, and how these interact with ‘capital-letter P’ politics. Such basic knowledge would help to equip citizens with a greater ability to hold governments to account, but also with a better understanding of what levers are available to promote particular public efforts, such as changing societies in ways that are more environmentally sustainable.

Another important issue is to create incentives for people to contribute to collective goods. If fishermen agree to a restructuring of their industries before rather than after a collapse of fishing stocks, they need some assurance of enabling them to pursue other opportunities. If people in the US agree to use significantly fewer fossil fuels, it may help to re-assure them of some collective effort to make affordable housing available closer to places of work and to extend public transport. If societies in emerging market countries – especially in China and in India – agree to pursue economic development based on cleaner energy they should be able to rely on considerable efforts at technology transfer from today’s wealthy countries.

Many potential solutions can rely on feed-back loops between public action and market-based mechanisms. One such example are efforts to give farmers in the Amazon forest market incentives to protect rather than destroy the forest (see the WB supported Forest Carbon Finance Facility). Creating and fostering such feed-back loops is essential for moving towards a virtuous cycle in which private incentives become more aligned with global survival.

At the international level, innovation is also sorely needed. International negotiations over limiting greenhouse gas emissions (the Kyoto Protocol and beyond) have amply exposed that the international system is poorly equipped to deal with major collective challenges and risks. It will be important to move towards a system that is perhaps less based on traditional diplomacy, and that is much more focused on solutions, results, and burden-sharing. Again, there are many reasons why breakthroughs are unlikely to happen – but various actors – think tanks and CSOs as well as international organizations and their officials themselves – can seek to build a stronger vision of reform and coalitions to achieve it.

The planet is already crowded; and as Sachs argues, ‘business as usual’ will bring us closer to destroying it with each passing year. He puts good technical and economic solutions on the table. Some of these solutions may work, others will require further refinement. However, it is the quality of governance across all levels of government and across all parts of the globe which will determine whether or not these solutions are adopted and implemented. Can we make the leap?

Photo Credit: Flickr user Blyzz

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