Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced “Facebook's plan to bring the global community together.” A few months earlier, a Swedish billionaire, László Szombatfalvy, established the Global Challenges Foundation and announced a $5-million-dollar prize to solicit ideas for remodeling global cooperation. The timing couldn’t be more symbolic, as many pundits are alarmed by what they see as an unraveling of the international system, exemplified by Brexit and a surge of anti-establishment political movements.
Globalization is vehemently disparaged by a number of prominent politicians, and Francis Fukuyama who, at one point, declared the ‘end of history,’ is now wondering how prepared our institutions really are to withstand a strong backlash. In this context, one could wonder, ‘Do we even need a system for global cooperation’? For me, the answer is a resounding Yes.
Global and regional institutions, such as the U.N. Security Council or the EU, are widely criticized for their shortcomings. Yet, it’s terrifying to imagine what the world would look like without them. When an unexpected event happens, be it an attack or a provocation aimed at testing the international system, the affected country, in the absence of a coordination mechanism, has no option but to escalate or accept its fate. Either response will likely invite more aggression. If the parties have access to impartial platforms for dialogue, as imperfect as they may be, cycles of violence can be pre-empted and stemmed.
Even if we look at matters beyond the realm of security – such as climate change – without strong international cooperation, this quintessential tragedy of the commons cannot be solved. Each individual country is better off on the sidelines, waiting for others to address the issue. So the climate will continue to deteriorate, and everyone will be worse off, until and unless various stakeholders come together, show leadership, and begin cooperation in the spirit of mutual trust. For that, a robust global governance mechanism is truly indispensable.
László Szombatfalvy is nevertheless convinced that the system is due for an upgrade. I agree. Here are a few principles worth considering:
1. Draw legitimacy directly from the people, using modern tools
Today, we have a proxy-based system where a person is represented in the U.N. via her nation-state. That has to change. Here, the international institutions need to learn from Facebook, WeChat, and Twitter to deploy technology and connect directly to the people. Firstly, they need to adopt, embrace and internalize the “user experience” style of thinking, leverage the existing social-network infrastructure to connect to individuals from every corner of the world, engage with them, learn about their issues, and develop a response mechanism.
Surely, the digital divide poses a problem, but addressing it is already one of the topics the U.N. is working on. It is better positioned and incentivized to find the remedies than any commercial enterprise alone. And perhaps the U.N. should consider developing an alternative, non-commercial social network with an app in every language and a functionality to help people worldwide to connect and get engaged in global affairs.
Switzerland – the most competitive economy in the world, as assessed by the World Economic Forum – is able to keep its citizens politically with a form of direct democracy. Can modern technology be used to replicate this on a global scale? Can the U.N. make it possible for every person on the planet to get directly engaged in its decision-making process and influence world affairs? It is a question worth exploring.
As the U.N. learns to draw legitimacy from the people, it should involve those very same people in implementing the agenda they help to define. The network of global institutions needs to find a way to raise funds from actors other than nation states. That will help create more accountability in the system and foster greater inclusivity. When Warren Buffett “signed papers that give $31 billion to the Gates Foundation,” did it cross his mind that the U.N. could deploy those resources to advance public interest as well, if not better? If the answer is no, it’s time for a serious self-evaluation. By attracting funders other than Nation States, be it major gifts from philanthropists and corporations or micro-contributions from general public, the U.N. will not just secure financial resources – it will gain stakeholders vested in its success.
2: Learn from tech start-ups - be a platform, not an agency
To start with, the U.N. should learn from László Szombatfalvy and become comfortable crowd-sourcing solutions. The way to overcome the agency problem is to reduce agency. The U.N., the World Bank, and others should make use of the “pay for performance” methodology – one that is agnostic to the type of solution an entrepreneurial venture offers, as long as it addresses the problem.
For example, if the societal value of improving 5th grade reading in Sub-Saharan Africa by 30% happens to be $100M, this figure should just be announced. Whoever is creative enough to raise funds and deliver on this goal for less, can be compensated when the goal is achieved. Such an approach assures results at a capped cost, and it helps foster innovation and outsources risk to third parties – if no one is able to meet the goal, no one gets paid.
To become agile, the U.N. needs to learn from tech startups. Perhaps by partnering with them to test machine learning or other new solutions to global problems. In such partnerships, everybody wins: startups make a contribution and boost their credentials by working on the hairiest of problems and the U.N. gets energy and fresh ideas from startups.
3: Be proactive, not reactive
From the dawn of civilization, human beings have been expanding their circle of affiliation from a family unit, to a tribe, to a city-state, to a nation. The admittedly philosophical problem with the founding of the modern global governance system is that it wasn’t set up with an aspirational goal of expanding this circle of affiliation to include all of humanity. Such a mandate and a clearly defined positive vision for the global cooperation, as opposed to conflict-prevention, is what’s missing from the genesis story of this international system. And, consequently, it stifles proactive agenda setting, which the critics and detractors unvaryingly dismiss and oppose as mission-creep.
To overcome this impediment, the U.N. must learn to boldly set a forward-looking agenda. Take the debate on artificial intelligence (AI), for instance. Some argue that it presents the biggest existential risk to human civilization since the invention of the nuclear weapons. Others forecast that it will make us all better off. Global cooperation on the safe development of AI is vital, and addressing this challenge proactively presents an opportunity for the U.N. to demonstrate leadership.
Through modern technology, international institutions must find a way to tailor communication to each individual stakeholder and explain how her or his life is impacted by global issues, broadening the scope of civic duty beyond the community, nation, and all the way to global political awareness.
Those ideas may or may not be immediately implementable, but what’s important is the initiative taken by the Global Challenges Foundation to stimulate blue-sky thinking. The marginal improvements to the global cooperation system will no longer suffice. My hope is, for the sake of humanity’s common future, that our international institutions will embrace change and commit to a fundamental transformation.