Global forums are becoming fashionable in global politics. They exist in Internet governance, migration, water governance, and urban management. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is discussing the possibility of organising a Global Health Forum. So what’s happening? Are global forums likely to fill the gap created by the end of the wave of big UN conferences? What can they achieve?
The last major UN conference was the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS, 2005). There are some follow-up events, but their ‘policy energy’ and mobilising impact cannot be compared to the major UN conferences held in the 1990s (Rio-1992: Earth Summit, Vienna-1993: human rights, Cairo-1994: population, Beijing-1995: women, Copehnagen-1995: social development). These 1990s conferences focused attention on global issues. They generated in-depth studies, reflections, and global debate. They addressed issues in comprehensive ways, highlighting cross-cutting aspects and reducing the risk of silos in global policy. They increased understanding and global awareness and produced agreements, plans of actions, and declarations.
Why did they disappear from global politics? One fundamental reason was the dominance of ‘doism’. In the last 10 years or so, it has been important to do something. Why to do it, or what direction to do it in, or with what purpose has not been as important. One of the reasons why we have gotten ourselves into economic trouble is that while we are active and doing things, we often think that broader issues will be sorted out by some invisible policy hand. Doing has been positive per se. In this context, big UN conferences were considered no more than unproductive and expensive talk shops. They were too slow for our fast-moving world, even if we were sometimes moving in the wrong direction.
With hindsight, we can say that UN conferences could have served as a useful reflective moment when we could have stepped back and thought about where we were going. The more people were involved, the more we could have avoided the confirmation bias of so-called experts who dominated policy space. The usual criticism of UN conferences focused on long speeches from Castro or the like, but very often we forgot the thousands of people thinking and discussing issues such as climate change, women rights or population. These conferences provided buy-in from people worldwide. Without participation, there is no implementation. Modern problems ranging from the financial crises to climate change, directly affect the lives of ordinary people. These people need to be consulted or at least offered a genuine possibility to be heard. The 1990s conferences played this role to some extent.
The gap in global policy created by the end of 1990s conferences is becoming increasingly obvious and perhaps this is why such conferences may be refashioned as global forums. These forums cannot be exactly what the 1990s conferences were. The world has moved on.
- Today, it is much more difficult to agree globally on a new treaty or convention. The 1990s tide of conventions completely withdrew in the first decade of the new millennium. With emerging economies and regional players, interests are much more diversified and it is increasingly difficult to reach global agreements. Climate change and trade negotiations are but two of the latest examples. When it comes to ‘tangible outcomes’, therefore, forums must be much less ambitious than those 1990s UN conferences.
- The Internet has created a global policy space. Empowered by the Internet, people want to have more say, not only in national politics but also on the global stage. E-participation can extend participation beyond a narrow policy-circles.
- Forums must be processes; the events themselves are simply conveyance points. Most of the interaction should happen online before and after the main event.
- Forums may coincide with likely ‘de-spin’ development in the global communications space. ‘Occupy’ movements do not use microphones or megaphones. Like people in the old Athens forums, they use their voices. Global forums may follow this development by increasing substantive discussion and reducing the use of ‘media megaphones’.
Forum will also pose certain challenges:
- Their function should be clearly stated. Global forums should be places for global policy discussions and decision-shaping. They should not be an excuse for lack of decision-making or inactivity when there is a need for more concrete and legal action (e.g. adopting conventions).
- With their defused structure, forums have few rules. This enables interactivity and inclusiveness, but also creates risks that the space could be easily hijacked by the loudest or the most skilful in, for example, using social media. This lack of rules could be a disadvantage for the weakest (i.e. those not proficient in social media, introverts, those coming from formal cultures). In a few years time, we may be discussing how to make sure that the voices of digital migrants are heard among the much louder digital natives (i.e. those experienced in using social media). Who will the new minority/majority be? Potentially, those whose means of communication are limited so they cannot have their say. When the weakest come from developing countries, this can create an additional exclusion dimension. The Internet Governance Forum, as a global policy ‘in vivo lab’ has initiated substantive discussion on the impact of informality (lack of procedures) on potential participation inequality.
Keep this in mind when you are developing the ‘next’ global forum!
 Full title of UN Conferences in 1990s
- World Conference on Human Rights [Vienna, 1993]
- The International Conference on Population and Development” [Cairo, 1994]
- United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women” [Beijing, 1995]).
- World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995)