Are post-World War II multilateral institutions – such as the United Nations, World Bank and NATO – no longer equipped to solve 21st century problems?

This question was put forth during a panel on global governance held at Duke’s Social Science Research Institute on Wednesday, March 18. The panel was part of the Duke Center for International Studies’ Theorizing Globalization series, which brings together experts to look at globalization from different points of view.

“International institutions are struggling mightily to address today’s challenges,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He cited the Ebola crisis and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as examples.

The good news, he said, is that new governance models are emerging to meet the challenge.

“We’re seeing an extraordinary diversity in international frameworks,” he said. These new structures tend to be ad hoc rather than permanent, selective rather than comprehensive, and voluntary rather than binding.

One trend is what Patrick referred to as “global governance in pieces,” where, instead of trying to find a comprehensive solution for issues like climate change, organizations are arriving at agreements related to smaller subsets such as deforestation and energy efficiency.

Patrick also noted the rise of trans-governmental networks and multi-stakeholder bodies. Not only are more actors being invited to the table, he said, but the state itself is becoming disaggregated as well. The C40 Coalition, a network of worldwide megacities working to curb greenhouse gas emissions, presents a compelling alternative to the traditional nation-state model.

“You’re starting to see much more of a hybrid develop,” he said. “And you’re starting to get more of a bottom-up rather than a top-down dynamic.”

This new model initially appears to be a good thing, he said, because it allows organizations to be more nimble, discriminating and adaptable to change. However, he warned, it complicates the realization of larger goals.

“Ad-hocism will undermine standing institutions that the world needs over the long term,” he said.

Another issue with emerging global governance structures is their lack of accountability, said Tana Johnson, assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and author of Organizational Progeny.

“A lot of the complex relationships we have are falling apart because of the difficulty of delegation,” she said. “The delegate can take the ball and run with it in ways that couldn’t have been imagined.”

On the other hand, she said, it is short-sighted to think that the traditional model is more accountable and effective. For a long time, bureaucrats have designed international organizations in ways that insulate them and make them harder for states to control.

“It’s strange to have unelected bureaucrats carrying out policy,” she said. “However, if we think about other major actors in global governance, those actors are not necessarily more accountable.”

Phyllis Pomerantz, professor of the practice of public policy at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and former chief learning officer at the World Bank, said that the newer, more flexible global governance structures would do well to adopt some of the formality of the Bretton Woods “behemoths.”

“What we’re not taking into account are the vast number of global initiatives and ad hoc programs that are not efficient and are not reaching their goals,” she said. “Initiatives overlap, they step on one another, they add up to less than the whole.”

She also approached the issue from the perspective of low-income and post-conflict countries. While she agreed that the proliferation of actors helps spread out risk and administrative costs, she said that low-income countries are rarely at the table when priorities are established.

“They have nameplates, but they aren’t really there – there are too many, given capacity limitations of those countries,” she said.

Also, she said, very few global initiatives actually aim to build capacity in developing countries.

“Monitoring indicators are formulated at the global level because [stakeholders] want to show global results,” she said. “Some of this proliferation of global goals may actually be cutting out critical needs at the low-income country level that don’t necessarily fit into the global agenda.”

She referred to “good enough governance,” a term referenced by Patrick and coined by Merilee Grindle of Harvard University to describe a more realistic approach to the limitations, trade-offs and priorities of governance at the national level.

“’Good enough’ global governance may not be good enough when it comes to low-income countries,” Pomerantz said.

During the discussion that followed, Gary Gereffi, director the Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness at Duke, proposed a framework for the evolution of international organizations. This new framework would give more weight to the developing world, link global and local issues, and encourage greater collaboration with non-state organizations, including the private sector.

“The private sector actors – not just multi-national corporations – are at least as important in crafting solutions,” he said. “We need to get below the level of the nation state.”

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