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Ten ways to make globalisation more democratic

By Duncan Kerr - posted Sunday, 15 April 2001

Why do people who have won the democratic right to choose their own leaders feel powerless and alienated?

This is the central paradox of our times. Democracy has emerged from the cold war unrivalled as the most desirable type of government, yet voters show even more cynicism about electoral politics. The root cause of this lack of faith is that citizens have lost much of their real power. Power has shifted from citizens and their elected representatives, to seemingly ungovernable transnational corporations or remote, unaccountable international institutions.

Much of the growing cynicism about electoral politics therefore is a by-product of globalisation. The legitimate concerns underlying this disaffection can only be addressed by developing strategies for citizens to resist and reform the processes which contribute to their current disempowerment.


Open markets have created economic growth by allowing resources to be used more efficiently. But the gains have been very unequally distributed. Losers in the globalisation game have been left behind. Our challenge is to retain the benefits that open markets bring while building new systems of democracy and accountability in our globalised world.

The following ten proposals should inform any strategy for transforming globalisation:

  1. Develop a program to deal with the negative structural consequences of globalisation.

  2. Central to social democracy is the belief that gross polarisation of wealth and poverty is not merely unsustainable - it is morally wrong. Reforms must be introduced which redress the inequality caused by globalisation in order to prevent the entrenchment of a ‘two-tier’ world. These could include the following: stabilising the world’s financial system, perhaps via a Tobin tax; developing a global anti-tax-evasion strategy; and implementing a multilateral agreement on social and labour standards.
  3. Foster the evolution of transnational political groupings.

  4. This would require social democratic parties to develop and debate an explicit critique of globalisation in their platforms. That critique must recognise that there are no longer exclusively national or local solutions to the problems facing the citizens and communities who these parties represent. Additionally, a transnational foundation could be established to examine matters related to global democracy.
  5. Establish a second, directly representative, assembly for the United Nations.

  6. The UN operates within an outmoded paradigm of international affairs in which only nation states are recognised as having international standing. Current moves to reform its operations must continue, and the establishment of a directly representative second assembly would inject greater accountability into the UN’s important work.
  7. Democratically preselect leaders of key international bodies.

  8. National governments should commit themselves to supporting only individuals elected by their citizens as candidates for major international offices – such as leadership of the European Union, WTO, IMF, World Bank or UNESCO. Successful candidates should not be able to rely on backroom deals.
  9. Introduce citizen-initiated recall provisions for key international positions.

  10. Currently there is no effective way of forcing an end to the mismanagement - no matter how scandalous - of any instrumentality of international government. Properly developed processes enabling recall of international office holders would improve accountability.
  11. Establish processes for the democratic endorsement of national nominees for international posts.

  12. Candidates for the global meta-bureaucracy should not be supported by national governments unless they reflect the formally expressed popular will of the national community.
  13. Require open negotiating processes in making regional and international agreements.

  14. There has been considerable progress towards openness in the development of major multilateral treaties, where draft texts are made available to the parties and the public well before final decisions are made. This should occur when any supranational treaty is negotiated.
  15. Allow participatory involvement in key international agreements before they are made or adopted.

  16. Ensuring better national debate takes place before significant international agreements are finalised would help identify crucial sticking points, reduce paranoia about innocuous proposals, and help build a transnational constituency of citizens who would understand and be committed to any ratified treaty.
  17. Insist that non-government organisations meet minimum standards of internal democratic accountability before they receive accreditation in international fora.

  18. The increased participation of NGOs is often used to suggest that international institutions are becoming more inclusive of civil society and more open to democratic input. Measures should be put in place to ensure that the ordinary members of NGOs have input into choosing the leadership and setting the policy agenda of these organisations, and to ensure that NGOs are not used as a front for big business or industry.
  19. Elect advisory chambers for transnational regional associations.

  20. A model for this could be the European parliament, which has served as a crucial sounding board for the policy direction of the European Commission. An elected advisory board along these lines could strengthen and democratise the workings of other transnational associations including NAFTA and APEC.

These proposals are offered as starting points for new thinking about strategies to reform global government along the lines of social democracy. Such strategies are not an option - they are a necessity. A commitment to fairness must join a commitment to growth. As Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the UN, observed in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January: ‘if we cannot make globalisation work for all, in the end it will work for none. The unequal distribution of benefits, and the imbalances in global rule-making, which characterise globalisation today inevitably will produce backlash.’

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About the Author

Hon. Duncan Kerr is Federal member for Denison (Tas) and was Federal Attorney General and Minister for Justice in the Keating government. He is author of Elect the Ambassador: Building Democracy in a Globalised World.

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