While people around the world identify in increasing numbers as global citizens, engagement with global governance remains practically non-existent. What could be done so that people care more? A range of structural and cognitive barriers make it difficult to prioritize global challenges, identify their relevance, access decision-making forums, or simply bear the emotional burden associated with issues of existential magnitude. It is, therefore, of crucial importance that we better educate citizens about global governance, develop new models of engagement, and more clearly communicate about the role and impact of global institutions.
Imagine a world without global institutions: no United Nations to solve international disputes, no Non-proliferation Treaty to prevent nuclear war, no Montreal Protocol to fix ozone depletion. How would your life be different then? Could you afford a personal computer, the shoes you wear, or exotic fruit, without the World Trade Organization? Do you know someone whose life might have ended without UNICEF or the World Health Organization?
According to a survey conducted in 2017 on behalf of the Global Challenges Foundation, many people consider themselves global citizens. Many also perceive the world as increasingly globalized and increasingly insecure. While they have confidence in global institutions to work on their behalf, citizen engagement with these institutions is practically non-existent. Why is that?
Scholarship suggests that citizens become interested in global institutions for two reasons only. When a global economic institution such as the World Trade Organization negatively affects their livelihoods, citizens will take to the streets, rejecting international interference with their lives. The opposite occurs during existential crises, when people in war-torn countries or experiencing natural disasters look to international organizations for help. Beyond these moments of immediate and personal distress, citizen engagement with global politics is limited to a handful of global NGOs. More specifically, there is almost no constructive engagement, where citizens shape and influence the development of global institutions and policies.
The most obvious and important reason for this disengagement is simply lack of knowledge. Most people go through life without knowing what the IMF is or what the Montreal Protocol does. Public education rarely touches upon ‘International Organizations’. The same is true of most news reporting. But even if people are made aware of complex global problems, such as climate change, and the corresponding global institutions, four additional obstacles hinder global citizenship engagement.
(1) Priorities. All political engagement takes time and energy. How much of it can you dedicate to participating in global institutions, particularly if you also want to be politically engaged at local or national levels? While surveys show that people are concerned with global issues, there are often more pressing things in their daily life. This challenge is exacerbated for people who struggle to make ends meet, worry about paying bills or tend to sick kids.
(2) Relevance. Political engagement thrives when people get fired up for a particular cause. But the link between a global issue, the relevant organization, and a person’s life are often hard to understand. Questions such as ‘How does the Non-Proliferation-Treaty protect me if North Korea sends a missile my way?’ are abstract and far removed from daily concerns. Global organizations often find it challenging to directly communicate with citizens, as they lack the budget and expertise for such outreach. National governments can exacerbate this situation by taking credit for benefits such as trade, open borders, or environmental protection, and scapegoating global actors when things go wrong or policies fail.
(3) Access. Despite efforts to improve citizen engagement, international organizations are generally hard to access. Attending meetings is often impossible unless you are part of an accredited NGO lucky enough to receive one of the limited ‘observer’ slots. Even if you get this far, opportunities to influence the process are basically non-existent. The best mode of action here might be lobbying your own government, which has a seat at the negotiation table.
(4) Emotional Resistance. Finally, if you overcome these obstacles, your mind creates yet another. It tends to keep negative and threatening information at bay, especially when it implies a potentially existential threat. This ‘distancing’ is a self-protection mechanism that makes all engagement with global issues challenging. More generally, the shift from awareness to care requires emotion to play in. Mobilizing emotions can be positive (excitement, hope) or negative (anger, hatred), but they need to be present for people to get engaged. These emotions are present when a problem touches a person’s deepest beliefs about justice and fairness. The experience of moral outrage over the unjust killing of people or the reckless destruction of nature for profit can be turned into engagement with global institutions.
“Better forms of communication could break emotional barriers that currently stand in the way of greater citizen engagement with global institutions.”
Achieving broad public engagement with global institutions will require overcoming these structural, cognitive, and emotional barriers. There are several potentially fruitful ways forward. First, governments, learning institutions, and the media need to step up education about global institutions to create the necessary level of public awareness. Second, international organizations need new ways to involve citizens and enable access to global governance processes. Finally, all of us need to think about new ways of communicating the importance of global institutions for the survival, health, and wellbeing of every person on the planet. Better forms of communication, including through narrative and images, could not only create awareness and interest, but also break emotional barriers that currently stand in the way of greater citizen engagement with global institutions.
On an increasingly connected planet, where the severity and urgency of global challenges are increasing, deeper public engagement with global institutions is necessary to ensure that the ever-growing task of global governance is not left to a small elite of bureaucrats, transnational corporations, and scientists. Democratizing global governance requires mechanisms that allow diverse voices from around the world to be heard and considered in global policy-making. Despite the practical challenges this would entail, global institutions that are responsive to the concerns of the global public would be better able to achieve their mission and serve their global constituency. Meaningful public participation would increase the transparency and legitimacy of global policy-making, facilitating the work of global institutions. Finally, joining a global-scale political discourse would go a long way towards developing a shared identity for humanity, what many consider a key step towards a more peaceful and sustainable world.