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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : Non-state Actors and World Governance

Non-state Actors and World Governance

For a better understanding and development of the role of non-state actors, the latter should be studied in conjunction with the general principles of governance.
A legitimacy based on objectives, values, and methods

Non-state Actors and World Governance


Pierre Calame ¤ 2 June 2008 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español . 中文 .

The question of legitimacy of non-state actors in governance has come up many times and it refers to the fact that regulations are public in nature. I previously stated that this idea is very simplistic. There are a certain number of facts which are undeniable. They are essentially related to international economy: in what way can the big corporations sitting in the World Business Council and Sustainable Development (WBCSD) justify their dictating the directives of global well-being; because they are big and international? Why can enterprises decide what technological developments are favourable for Humanity? Because they have the technical means to develop them and the financial capacity to pay millions of dollars to bombard public opinion to convince them that these innovations are good; as was the case with genetically modified plants?

To avoid the two obstacles of dogmatism and simplemindedness, we should bring up the general principles of governance and examine the way these principles are applied to non-state actors’ actions and co-operations between them and with state actors.

Legitimacy based on objectives, values and methods

The traditional theory of governance confuses legitimacy and legality. On an international level, this confusion is due to the combination of two factors: democratic ideology and the principle of sovereignty.

What is legitimacy? It is peoples’ assurance that society is being administered by rules accepted and understood by all, that authority is being assumed by competent leaders devoted to the public good, that the obligations imposed on individuals in the name of this common good are justly dimensioned, which means they target the public good with the fewest possible obligations. Each citizen is willing to give up part of their liberty, if it is worthwhile.

In democratic regimes, we consider that leaders are legitimate if they have been elected by the people. Therefore legality, by definition a legal term, is confused with legitimacy, a subjective notion. However, experience proves that political leaders do not enjoy high moral or intellectual credibility from the citizens that have elected them. This has been proven by public opinion polls. Instead of establishing the philosophical principle that the free election of representatives should lead us to choose the best ones, we should address social and financial reality: governments are usually elected by a short margin; the importance of theatrics; the role of money in the elections; the difficulty that democracies have in addressing important political matters; political terms that are too short and make long-term matters unpopular.

On the international scene, the principle of sovereignty puts neighbour’s affairs out of bounds. De facto leaders quickly become legitimate leaders, especially when we wish to make allies or when we have helped them to claim power. The United Nations Charter begins with the nice idea of “the Peoples of the Earth” and finally becomes “the syndicate of governants”, repeating the acute expression used by Georges Berthoin. Democracies have always been divided between the desire to found a club of “presentable leaders”, meaning from free elections, and the concrete necessity to deal with the de facto leaders.

This is why, in the public’s eyes, based on opinion polls, non-governmental organisations have a better reputation than political leaders, including democratic leaders: they are considered more sincere, less selfish, and more competent, three criteria of legitimacy. Anyway, who has the legitimacy to represent people not subject to law, those who do not vote, future generations, animals and the biosphere?

When the Rockefeller Foundation carried out investigations into wheat in Mexico in the 40s, when they, together with the Ford Foundation, established the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in the 60s, initiatives which were to take us to a green revolution, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has mobilised itself on AIDS or when our Foundation organises dialogue between Chinese and European societies, they do not have any mandate other than themselves. It is the approach and the results which give them their legitimacy and not any title of ownership over the public good.

Values come into play as another dimension.

The international community is confronted on this subject with a historical deadlock. The ethical pedestal, recognised by more or less everyone, with many restraints outside Western democracies, is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After many years, the idea of political rights – equality before the law, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, and right of association – has been expanded to economic, social, environmental and cultural rights. But constantly affirming rights is an aporia: for positive rights to be respected, such as economic and social rights, it is necessary to have the right conditions and have third parties responsible to bring about those conditions. Moreover, the unilateral declaration of rights gives an unbalanced definition of citizenship, as citizenship has always been equilibrium of rights and obligations. Here we see the importance of non-governmental work in promoting the idea of the third international pillar, next to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a Charter of human responsibilities as the ethical foundation of the 21st Century. There cannot be a legitimate international regulation, that is, one accepted by everyone, if there is not a common ethical base. From this point of view, states and non-state actors, if I may say so, “are under the same pavilion”. This means sharing common ethical values that legitimate actions. The liberty of the enterprises is to undertake business necessarily contrasts, ethically and legally, with their social and environmental responsibilities: responsibility of the legal structure in itself and the personal responsibility of their executives. Other non-state actor such as NGOs can be legitimately questioned on the way they have exercised their own responsibilities, whereas they so often prefer to speak about the responsibility of other entities: enterprises and governments. In the same way, the question of ecological debt can also be brought up: like the states, as representatives of their respective peoples, can they be made responsible for the damages caused to the environment? There will not be legitimate world governance without reference to those principles of responsibility and equality.

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