For a UN of NGOs
Jacques Attali, the French writer and thinker, is president of PlaNet Finance. He was founding president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the top aide to former French President François Mitterrand.
New York—Let us imagine a General Assembly of non-governmental organizations. I am convinced that the next evolution in global governance is to formalize the role of these civil-society institutions alongside the waning nation states that make up the UN today and the world-spanning corporations whose clout transcends any political boundaries.
The UN, which was born after the Second World War, only began to operate effectively after the end of the Cold War—just at the time, ironically, when nations that constitute the international body began to lose their power to economic globalization. Now it is high time to give birth to the globalization of democracy.
In the same way as the modern state derived from feudalism and capitalism grew from professional guilds, NGOs are giving rise to a new dynamic entity that, like the global market, crosses all borders of nation states and that one day, I believe, will be stronger than the market and political forces.
This dream is realistic: Today, NGOs have more influence on the destiny of humanity than many nations that have a seat in the UN. Even in the worst dictatorships, women, men and children have improved their living conditions by joining together voluntarily, apart from politics, to tackle pressing concerns with which neither governments nor private companies are capable or willing to deal.
Many major positive developments over the last 50 years have arisen from these organizations of civil society: the fight for human rights, humanitarian aid, emergency medicine, the right to die with dignity, the right for birth control, women's rights, the awareness of new diseases such as AIDS, children's rights, the right to education and health services, the right for information and freedom of association and environmental protection. All these changes have originated from organized activist groups, not from political parties, private corporations, governments or trade unions.
Just as bringing these challenges to light over the past half-century has been the role of NGOs, much of the fate of our planet depends on their role in the future.
Let's start with several theses about the world we live in:
• Despite the progress toward achievement of the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN, many goals will not be reached by 2015. For instance, public aid to development, as a percentage of the national gross income of donor countries, has reached rock bottom, and the amount set by the UN for the poorest countries has fallen. Exports from the poorest to the richest countries are continuously falling—except for exports of weapons and oil.
• In the times ahead, poverty—the prime cause for violence, the decline of democracy and the demise of public services—will increase.
Today, more than a third of humanity survives on less than $2 per day (which is the absolute poverty line). If there are no changes, nearly half of humanity will fall within that category. At the other end of the social ladder, wealth will be held by a handful of people. In such a world, terrorism will abound and perhaps give way to a real war between the well-off and the others, even within the richest nations.
And yet, more than ever before, our world has the political, financial, economic and technological means to solve these problems. It also has the military and environmental means to commit planetary suicide. Often, we seem well on the way to doing the latter.
n Governments and political or terrorist movements can shape the political map of the world, but they cannot define it by themselves. As globalization advances, very old nations are breaking up and new nations are forming. States can no longer defend their cultural identity and ensure welfare for their poor. Many areas in the world, from favelas to urban ghettos, are becoming areas where law enforcement officials have little, if any, authority.
While private companies have the capacity, often more than states, to shape the world through their technological innovations (from genetics to computing), organization of work, market reach and promotion of consumerism, even these great conglomerates don't have the means or interest to build a sustainable world.
n Civil organizations created long ago—political parties alongside government and trade unions alongside business—are not equipped to deal with the new mix of issues that arise from our present-day global political economy faced with urgent ecological challenges.
n To tackle these issues, new nonprofit organizations—NGOs—are providing civil goods and services from promotion and protection of human rights to famine aid, medical relief and environmental improvement. They make the world more tolerable and liveable. They help the UN carry out its peacekeeping and development missions.
These NGOs bring some sense to globalization, which, without them, is often only a landscape of markets and wars. They bring to the table of military and economic might the concepts of global governance, the rights of future generations, social equality and women's and minority's rights.
They fight for the foundations of democracy instead of just free elections: freedom of expression, protection of women and children, opposition to the death penalty, the right to work, the right to shelter and access to credit. NGOs invented the concept of sustainable development.
They are the leaders in the fight for the protection of the diversity of species, languages and culture and against global warming. And they have taken the lead in tackling poverty by setting up microcredit institutions—the financial tool of the future—across the world.
Given these realities, where can we go from here?
To start with, I do not like the name that others have given to these new entities. The three letters in NGO represent three of the most hated words in any language: "non," a negative; "governmental," which makes us think of the intrusive state; and, finally, "organization," which brings to mind bureaucracy. Who could think of a worse name?
We should not accept this name anymore and find another one. I would suggest "solidarity institutions." (In the Anglo-Saxon world, I understand, "solidarity" has a distinctly foreign unfamiliarity. Perhaps another word, such as "humanitarian," might find more resonance.)
This is not an anecdotal debate. To name oneself is precisely to name the purpose of one's being.
To achieve their potential, "solidarity institutions" must become more professional in their administration and more transparent in their financing and governance. Indeed, a code of ethics should define the conditions of admittance in any group that will have the right to send its representatives to a future global assembly.
Since a UN General Assembly already exists, and since corporations have thousands of places to meet, solidarity institutions should also have their own forum. The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in some ways fulfills that goal. To go even further, the annual NGO summit at the UN, the 57th of which was held recently, should become institutional and autonomous: a UN of NGOs, or rather a World Solidarity Institutions Organization—the WSIO.
Such an organization should seek to define goals for action for the next 15 years alongside governments and corporations. Some suggestions:
• A world without poverty is possible if microfinance becomes a priority. Microfinance is the only way most human beings on the planet have any hope to earn a living. Today, more than 60 million people already have access to it. In 20 years to come, this number could reach 1 billion.
• A world without dictatorship is possible. To reach this goal, the right to interfere in countries that kill or mistreat their own populations should be fully recognized. And no dictatorship should be authorized to have representation at the UN.
• Every person should have access to basic needs—water, clean air, food, shelter, knowledge and freedom.
n The funding of global governance to achieve these goals should be raised through a global tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, which contributes most to global warming.
• Governments will not be able to reach these goals by themselves, and it is not the role of private corporations to do so. They can only be achieved by NGOs/WSIOs that operate with humanitarian values and often with volunteers. Thus, every country should offer tax credits to those who devote time to working with solidarity institutions; companies should offer paid leave for such activities. Further, any country that prevents local solidarity institutions from working and developing freely within their borders should be excluded from international aid.
NGOs have demonstrated their capacity to have an impact on the world. And now the world needs them more than ever. Let's take the next step and formalize their role in global governance. It is time to do so because time is running out. Our future is too important to leave to governments and corporations alone.