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A Riot of Global Norms

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Part of my job is to give advice to teams working on different projects and initiatives in the broad areas of governance and accountability regarding what I like to think of as people-related challenges. And one of the commonest threads running through the initiatives I look at is the challenge of transplanting global norms. Think for a minute about the norms around good governance, around work on anti-corruption. In almost every case, initiatives involve a set of global norms  that experts want developing countries to adopt.

Each norm embodies an 'ought' proposition: this is how a proper civil service should be organized, this is how a proper procurement system should be set up, this is how accountable service delivery departments ought to function, and so on. Interventions/projects/programs are designed around those global norms. Experts are assembled, funds allocated, and the initiative is up and running. All that is needed in the' partner country' is that the government is willing that this initiative should go ahead. This is where it usually goes wrong. For the leaders and citizens in the 'partner country' have a decisive role to play in whether or not the initiative succeeds, whether or not the global norm is accepted as part of the public culture of the country. They have a vote and it is amazing how often their vote is No.

The problem is simple: it is not easy to embed a global norm in a specific context. For norms - like other conventions and like values- are the creations of collectivities. Norms cannot simply be imported and imposed. The leaders - especially opinion leaders- and citizens in the specific country context have a say, and a decisive say in whether or not a global norm is accepted and enforced by that society itself. The 'ought' proposition involved in the norm will not stick unless enough people in that society affirm it.

Yet we have a global technocracy in international development committed to an ever growing set of global norms. We have our norm setting processes: 'best practice guidelines', policy documents, White Papers. We are totally convinced that these norms are unexceptionable, even blindingly obvious. Then we charge around the world seeking to embed these norms in different political communities. Then of course we run into people, public opinion, values and belief systems that collide with or are incompatible with the norms we hold dear.  We become frustrated, we want things to change...instantly.

In every society norms evolve, so you can transplant global norms. But it takes time, and it involves deliberate, planned and sustained efforts to engage those whose society it is. They have to co-create the norms of, say, good and accountable governance or nothing will change. It is exactly the point someone once made about viable democratic change: you cannot build a democracy without democrats. The point deserves some reflection.

Photo credit: Flickr user funkandjazz


Submitted by Robert de Quelen on
Dear Sina, You raise an extremely relevant question. An interesting example is the European Union, where the consensus-building process may appear painstakingly slow, but once a norm has been adopted by all countries, it applies to 450 Million citizens across the 27 EU countries. In fact, more often than not, EU norms even serve as a reference for other geographical zones. Could this apply to norms in the area of governance? I do not know, but what is clear is that over the years this process has created a specific culture. As much as everyone may grumble against the "Eurocracy", we all follow the rules because we know participating is the best chance we have to get our voice heard.

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