Democracy between nations
The challenges of achieving democracy in relations between governments are well known.
In the United Nations, voting generally proceeds on the basis of ‘one country one vote’, not ‘one citizen one vote’. There is no ‘world parliament of citizens’ to provide a global constituency for international decision-making.
The United Nations Security Council with its limited membership, has a casting vote on many crucially important issues.
Smaller countries, or those with lower average per capita incomes or trade and investment flows, often complain that they are left out of key international decisions, particularly where international trade liberalisation is concerned.
Too often countries pursue national economic self-interest, not an enlightened global ethic, when they decide on negotiating positions in international negotiations. Climate change negotiations have sadly been a case in point.
In short, there is lots to be done to equip current systems of intergovernmental negotiations and institutions both to reflect democracy and to deliver sustainable development.
Multistakeholder Democracy and sustainable development
Alongside these challenges, sustainable development is strongly associated with a recognition that complex and many-headed environmental and social challenges cannot be resolved by governments, or citizens, or businesses, acting alone. And it is not only states who participate in negotiating the global governance rules that shape sustainable development. Non-governmental organisations and businesses are also important players.
These players bring skills and insights that can enhance expertise and bring decision-making closer to affected interests. But their participation in international negotiations also raises issues of transparency, representation, legitimacy and accountability.
Larger non-governmental organisations and businesses may be better resourced and potentially have more impact in some international negotiations than the representatives of smaller or less well-resourced countries.
A variety of international partnerships and multistakeholder initiatives have therefore sprung up to address environmental and social challenges that cross national boundaries. At the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development, these kinds of initiatives were actively promoted as so-called ‘Type II partnerships’.
International multistakeholder initiatives raise major questions about the proper mix between ‘representative democracy’ on the one hand, and on the other hand decision-making on public issues in which other stakeholders play a direct role in shaping policy.
Standards, democracy and sustainable development
We aim to explore, analyse links between representative democracy and other kinds of multistakeholder decision-making at international level.
Our starting point for analysis is a process which aims to develop a new International Guidance Standard on the Social Responsibility of organisations of all kinds.
The “ISO 26000″ process involves hundreds of people from over 75 countries, organised as individual experts in a total of six stakeholder categories. These include industry, non-governmental organisations, governments, trade unions and consumers.
ISO 26000 process is important from a ‘democracy and sustainable development’ perspective, because it covers many public policy areas, including human rights, labour and environment, where governments have already negotiated international frameworks.
International standards, such as those of ISO, are also given special status in global governance by rules of the World Trade Organization. These set out circumstances when WTO Members must use relevant international standards as a basis for their national product laws and regulations.
The ISO 26000 process has unfolded through a working group of the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). The working group has been working since 2005 to develop the draft standard, which will be formally released for an initial vote by ISO’s member standards bodies in September 2009.
You can read more about some of the tensions between government-led public policy and multistakeholder consensus-based decision-making in ISO 26000 in a May 2009 article by Halina Ward for Ethical Corporation here.
In September 2009, Halina will be attending a small retreat meeting of practitioners and non-governmental organisations in New York State. The meeting will consider the role of market-based social and environmental standards in addressing global sustainability challenges. The retreat is being convened by the Pacific Institute and ISEAL Alliance.
For us, the meeting is an opportunity to reflect on the role that environmental and social standards play in shaping the relationship between democracy and sustainable development.