Political Will — And Political “Won't”
Why has the world agreed on mankind’s greatest problems — but failed to act?
April 22, 2004
Imagine a world in which governments, civil society groups, private companies and multilateral agencies all agreed on what mankind's major problems are.
Sounds too good to be true? Sadly, we live in that world already — yet our failure to confront shared problems could not be more evident.
Scholars and experts today continuously analyze the shortcomings of international cooperation, often concluding their essays quoting Lenin's dictum, "What is to be done?"
The most common — and deeply unsatisfying — answer they come up with is the need for greater "political will."
In the past months alone, we have seen many such examples. Let me point out just three of them: There was the hollow sounding "Never again" at commemorations of the Rwandan genocide a decade ago — while a similar catastrophe unfolds in the Sudan.
The reluctant U.S. engagement in Haiti, first to protect President Aristide — then to spirit him out of the country.
And third, at a recent World Bank meeting, Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva implored that "the world has enough resources to satisfy the needs of a population twice as big as the present one. But it lacks the political will to overcome this inequality."
To judge by the number of international conferences and summits producing statements of solidarity and shared goals, the global community should be drowning in its own political will by now.
The year 2000 was in fact a high-water mark for such a global ethos. At the United Nations, 189 heads of government signed off on the Millennium Declaration.
This agenda included curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS and malaria, cutting global hunger and poverty in half, protecting human rights and eradicating the scourge of war, preserving our eco-systems and habitats — and ensuring universal primary education.
But doesn't the agenda flowing from that and related summits — cutting rich-country agricultural subsidies, a major North-South development partnership, vastly increasing foreign aid and promoting foreign direct investment — sound familiar?
It should. It's a virtual copy of the World Bank's global poverty strategy document from 1965.
The world community as a whole is hardly even trying to keep its promises, according to the World Economic Forum's just released Global Governance Initiative.
This report evaluated the levels of effort and cooperation in 2003 among governments, international organizations, businesses and civil society towards the United Nations Millennium Declaration goals — and found them dearly lacking.
In other words: "Political will" has become an oxymoron. It should be called "political won't."
For one, with their increasing focus on methodology, numerical targets and political maneuvering, the technocrats of the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO — and other global institutions — cannot fulfill the needs of six billion people.
What these institutions have instead accomplished over decades of negotiation, however inadvertently, has been to normatively proscribe every single possible sphere of human activity.
Witness for example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966).
To sum up the literally thousands of treaties and declarations that have been issued, ratified or endorsed: Every human has the moral right to a political voice, economic opportunity, a safe and tolerant community — and a clean environment. (I have just saved you 900,000 pages of reading.)
Empowering people to have these goods requires not merely political will — but rather a great deal more human will.
People know what their interests are, and now, thanks to the ever more intensive global dialogue, they also know their rights. They should act on them.
Where political will can hold back progress, human will can propel societies forward. Why, for example, should the co-existence of Arabs and Israelis be contingent on the Bush Administration's political will, which is subject to the constant flux of U.S. domestic politics?
The Geneva Accord process in the Middle East, led by former ministers — and backed by a groundswell of civil society activism — is an example of human will.
As Nobel laureate and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter remarked in Geneva, "Political leaders are the obstacle to peace." Let Colin Powell and other officials attend as "observers." A peace made without the people is a piece of paper.
Supporting subsidiary — dealing with problems at the source — should be the norm, not the exception.
President Lula and other leaders of the developing world may be right in scolding the United States and Europe for spending $350 billion annually in agriculture subsidies and only $57 billion in development aid.
But standing up to them at the September 2003 WTO ministerial in Cancun only draws attention to the problem. It does not solve it.
International agencies will never replace domestic democratic accountability.
Lula and leaders from like-minded countries — such as India and South Africa — need their own solutions, not aid with strings attached.
Bringing down their own tariffs and promoting South-South trade would unleash greater entrepreneurial energy — and ultimately bring far greater wealth.
What better evidence for the triumph of subsidiary and human will than the fact that local micro-credit schemes from Bangladesh to Bolivia have lifted so many millions more out of poverty than any foreign aid program in history?
The key realization is that it is their opportunity to seize, not the North's to squander. The "Washington Consensus" one-size-fits-all approach is giving way to the recognition of local and regional solutions to local and regional — as well as inter-regional — problems.
In the struggle to achieve universal rights for everyone, legitimacy must be defined by efficacy, not inertia.
The mandate of international goals on development, ecological conservation, education and other issues has been universally ratified — and it is everyone's responsibility to fulfill it.
As UN advisor John Ruggie has written, "Going forward, everyone can and will be judged by concrete results in meeting an integrated set of goals and targets, assessed by specific performance measures."
A movement's only claim to authority ought to be that it can get the job done. As Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen recently wrote, "If it's fair, it's good."
It would be futile to count the number of times "political will" is named as a chief culprit in hindering some shared notion of global progress.
What matters, however, is that "political will" be understood as a person, a policy, a country — not a scapegoat by which all are guilty and none are responsible.
But producing a menu is one thing, delivering the meal is another. In other words, there is a big difference between prescription and action.
Until governments and international organizations move from the former to the latter, waiting for "political will" is counter-productive at best.
After hundreds of international summits, commissions and panels, political will has taken us as far as pointing us the right direction — but only human will can get us there.
Director, Global Governance Initiative Parag Khanna is director of the Global Governance Initiative and a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. He is also the author of “How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance” (Random House, 2011) and “The Second World: Empires and […]