Volume 26 (3) of INNOVATION published: Editorial

Global Governance and Democratic Legitimacy: A Bottom-up Approach

Jan Wouters, Stephanie Bijlmakers, Nicolas Hachez, Matthias Lievens, Axel Marx *

This special issue aims to contribute to the debate on the democratization of global governance. Its starting point is that, two decades after the emergence of the concept of ‘global governance’ in scholarly literature, the empirical specificities of the transforming political landscape that it seeks to describe remain largely unsettled. Literature in various disciplines has identified key trends in governance beyond the nation State. These suggest that global governance envisions a growing role for variegated (non-)State actors that act through multi-level and multi-dimensional regulatory networks and processes to tackle global challenges in a wide range of issue areas and in the absence of a central public authority. Yet, global governance is a highly diverse, complex and continuously changing phenomenon. How it manifests itself empirically depends on a variety of factors, like the respective governance modes, processes, logics, agents, outcomes and subjects involved, as well as the timeframe and issue area in which a particular governance arrangement is embedded. Global governance arrangements thus display a great diversity, from the more institutionalized and intergovernmental formats to networks, private regulatory schemes and standards, public-private partnerships (PPPs) or multi-stakeholder initiatives.

However, certain themes of inquiry run across the academic literature on global governance. The most prominent question may be that of the legitimacy of some of these innovative and peculiar governance schemes. Global governance initiatives, and notably PPPs, have often been praised for their problem-solving capacity with regard to cross-border issues that challenge State authority and domestic regulation. Their effectiveness has served as an important source of legitimacy, or in Scharpf’s terminology, output legitimacy.[1] A normative critique of global governance in legitimacy terms however arises from the fact that global governance arrangements are often authoritative and their outcomes govern or have an indirect or direct impact on the daily lives of people.[2] As a result, there is increasing support for the view that global governance, like more traditional types of modern government, ought to derive its legitimacy from its democratic character.

Recent debates about the democratization of global governance have witnessed efforts by political scientists, philosophers and legal theorists to explain and conceptualize democracy beyond the nation State at a general level. These efforts underline the interdisciplinary nature of global governance as a field of study, as well as the potential that can be reached if academic scholars bridge disciplinary divides in order to achieve a better and more nuanced understanding of global governance. However, the debate on the democratization of global governance tends to take global governance for granted as an analytical category, and seldom pays due attention to the great diversity of particular schemes and initiatives. Therefore, the efforts at building a theory of democratic global governance often appear abstract and detached from reality. In particular, critics have emphasized that global democratic theory is too radical or idealistic and fails to present governance actors with concrete suggestions to buttress the democratic quality of their initiatives.

In light of the above, this special issue brings together philosophical, legal, and political science expertise to provide a critical assessment of the democratization project for global governance by analyzing the democratic credentials of a variety of global governance initiatives. The concrete initiatives studied cover various fields, including health, forestry, food safety, climate change, fisheries, corporate social responsibility, and form a broad sample of the shapes that global governance can take. The approach of this special issue is thus not to espouse certain generalizations about the concept of global governance, but rather to advocate a bottom-up approach which does justice to the empirical reality of particular global governance arrangements. These highlight the diversity in global governance initiatives, as well the importance of appreciating their unique features when embarking upon the project of analyzing their democratic pedigree.

* Corresponding authors. Email: name.surname@ggs.kuleuven.be. This special issue features papers presented at the international workshop on ‘Inequality in Global Governance: Causes and Consequences of Unequal Representation and Decision-making in Global Governance Institutions’, Leuven, 8-9 November 2011. This workshop was funded by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (FWO-GRESI).

[1] Scharpf, F.W., 1998. Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic? Oxford University Press, New York.

[2] De Búrca, G., 2008. Developing Democracy Beyond the State. Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, pp. 101-158.

For further information please see: Volume 26 3 Special Issue:  Global governance and democratic legitimacy: a bottom-up approach