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Last month, two major international conferences were convened – the G-20 in Los Cabos on food security and sustainable development and the Rio +20 conference on the environment and more. Lawrence MacDonald contrasted the two meetings in his blog, pointing out that in both cases “much of the action is on the sidelines.” And he’s right. But imagine going to a World Cup game and deciding that it is so poorly played you’d prefer to listen to the vuvuzelas? Given the challenges that the world faces today it is a real problem to rely on the sideline action rather than having the main players do a good job in the field.

I had the opportunity to look into the differences between the main players – formal institutions of global governance – and the “sidelines” after receiving an invitation earlier this year to speak at the Society for International Development in the Netherlands, which led to a CGD essay “Global Government, Mixed Coalitions, and the Future of International Cooperation.” I was thinking about the proliferation of international initiatives these days outside of the formal confines of multilateral agencies such as the WHO, the IMF, and the WTO – on the sidelines as it were. In my own work at CGD, it seemed like the most successful policy work was not taking place through the public institutions created to provide better global governance but rather through mixed coalitions – groups made up of state and non-state actors whose only stake in a particular issue is their interest and willingness to take action. In “The art of the posse-able,” Michael Green and Matthew Bishop refer to such mixed coalitions as “posses” – familiar to people  who have read or watched “Westerns.” The term, posse, gets across the idea that these groups are voluntary and focused on a specific goal. It also makes the point that these groups sometimes represent legitimate expressions of collective purpose but can also be illegitimate gangs endangering the public and violating rights.

I was particularly struck by the way organizations like WHO and the World Bank have been sidelined in the health arena by mixed coalitions like the GAVI Alliance and the Global Fund for Aids TB and Malaria. Similar mixed coalitions have moved ahead in the environmental arena, sidestepping official channels on issues like eliminating leaded gasoline; and even on security issues where The International Campaign to End Landmine mobilized the willing rather than wait for traditional arms control institutions to respond. And when I looked to history, I found that this has been the norm for a long time. From abolishing slavery in the 19th century to addressing the spread of infectious diseases, responding to financial crises, and cleaning the environment, mixed coalitions are really the rule rather than the exception.

This may be a good thing. Mixed coalitions are promising in many ways. They tend to be more agile than formal institutions because the people, NGOs, foundations, agencies, and countries that want to take action get together and move. These mixed coalitions can also pull on a broader range of resources and innovate. They don’t tend to have endowments or dues to establish their autonomy so they only persist to the extent that members remain committed. Ultimately, they are checked by the fact that they can only do things that legitimate public authorities (nation-states) allow them to do. These points about feedback and limitations are important because mixed coalitions are not always forces for good. International campaigns to promote discriminatory laws that repress women and criminalize an individual’s sexual orientation are among the list of mixed coalitions today that I hope will fail.

However, mixed coalitions face a significant limitation: they are not able to compel adherence to their agreements. If a mixed coalition had the authority to compel action it wouldn’t be a mixed coalition anymore, it would have become a global governance mechanism. One tragedy of this limitation is that we accomplish much less than we could. Countries can individually do a lot on their own – the richer and the more powerful they are, the bigger difference they can make. Yet coordinated management of international liquidity and stimulus could have brought the world economy through the recent crisis more effectively than independent action by any single country or mixed coalition, no matter how large. Collective action to control small arms, raise  tobacco taxes, and reduce illicit financial flows is also more effective than individual actions because of cross-border issues like smuggling and public goods issues like information sharing standards

But this limitation is particularly problematic for the class of issues that involve irreversible damage. For example, combating drug resistance requires enforceable international action without which we may live to see a period of increasing disease and death from infections that are easily treated today. The impending global collapse of fisheries  is another irreversible prospect that requires authority to compel adherence to collective regulations. And then there’s global warming which is clearly the largest irreversible challenge that we face. Mixed coalitions can make some progress but the scale and timing of the problem require concerted global action, like a gradual sustained increase in taxes to price carbon fuel products at their true cost to society.

We certainly have plenty of reason to be skeptical that global governance reform will come in time to address such issues. Europe’s struggles to establish its own governing framework among a relatively homogeneous group of countries is a stark example of these difficulties. For that matter, the United States isn’t such a model of effective governance today either. But the vision of what global governance could be is on many people’s minds, from Kermal Dervis and Ceren Özer to Joseph Stiglitz, Mark Malloch-Brown and George Soros. It may be that mixed coalitions will play a role in pressuring for such reforms or that they will lead to the creation of entirely new institutions. I remain optimistic that our complex mix of global governance and mixed coalitions will eventually resolve many of the challenges we face. But it is not an optimism that comes from looking at the way we’re behaving today. Rather it comes from reading historical accounts about the “end of the world” and realizing that, at least so far, it hasn’t happened yet.

Thanks to Lawrence MacDonald for his sharp comments and several links.