Academic journal article Global Governance

Global Public Goods: Critique of a UN Discourse

Academic journal article Global Governance

Global Public Goods: Critique of a UN Discourse

Article excerpt

The concept of global public goods has been advanced as a way of understanding certain transborder and global problems and the need for a coordinated international response. It has been used to describe everything from global environment, international financial stability, and market efficiency, to health, knowledge, peace and security, and humanitarian rights. Using an internal critique, this article finds that the concept is poorly defined, avoids analytical problems by resorting to abstraction, and masks the incoherence of its two central characteristics. The conclusion is that even if the concept of global public goods is effective rhetorically, precise definition and conceptual disaggregation are required to advance analysis of global issues. KEYWORDS: public goods, externalities, international public policy.

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In the last several years, academics and policymakers have turned to the concept of global public goods as, to use former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's words, "the missing term in the equation" for understanding and addressing a number of international problems. Though the shift of focus as a result of September 11, 2001, has negatively impacted the prominence of the global public goods literature--for instance, work on humanitarian intervention or human security--the concept continues to be an important one in certain policy, official, and academic circles. While the basic notion of public goods is borrowed from the public economics literature, in the broader policy community, global public goods have come to encompass everything from the global environment, international financial stability, and market efficiency, to health, knowledge, peace and security, and human rights.

The concept of public goods has been used in international relations scholarship for some time. The term global public goods itself goes back at least to the early 1990s. (1) But the most recent wave of interest was generated in the context of the UN's Millennium Development Goals as a way of understanding certain transborder problems and the need for a coordinated international response. The global public goods concept has been promoted most particularly by researchers associated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank. (2) Kofi Annan claimed that to secure peace, greater well-being, social justice, and environmental sustainability, collective action is a prerequisite since "no country can achieve these global public goods on its own, and neither can the global marketplace." (3) It was the conceptual key to the World Bank's rebranding of itself as the "Knowledge Bank." And for the Research Department at UNDP, the concept was the fulcrum of a project to reinvent the case for international development assistance and the rationale for a fundamental rethinking of the working of the global political and economic system.

Unfortunately, the concept of global public goods is poorly defined, and in this article we argue that it is better understood as a rhetorical device than as an analytical tool. (4) The attempt to apply the concept of public goods at the international level draws on a wide range of literatures to modify and widen the economic definition, but as a result, explanatory power is compromised. Furthermore, the attempted manipulation of the concept ignores its fundamental incoherence, its mixing together of the distinct concepts of nonrivalness and nonexcludability.

We use here an internal discursive critique, examining the logic at the heart of the concept rather than considering in detail its theoretical or practical applications. We first outline the concepts of public goods and global public goods. In the two substantive sections of the article, we address the problems of abstraction and incoherence. We suggest that researchers and policymakers should eschew the rhetorical attractiveness of this ill-defined concept and instead examine the political economy of exclusion, rivalry, and public provision as they pertain to international cooperation and global issues. …

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