Unify Global Governance under a Restructured United Nations System

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For many years, there has been a debate within civil society as to whether the triumvirate of Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization) should be reformed, eliminated, or replaced with alternative institutions. Institutional reform is a viable strategy when the institutions in question are fundamentally fair and aligned with a legitimate purpose but have simply been corrupted, such as the case with many national governments. It may not be a viable strategy when the structure, mandate, purposes, principles, and processes of an institution are so fundamentally at odds with the human interest as are those of the Bretton Woods Institutions.

To borrow a phrase applied to aging nuclear power plants, it is time to consider beginning a process of decommissioning the Bretton Woods institutions and unifying global governance under a restructured United Nations system. 

The World Trade Organization

Any expansion of the WTO mandate or membership should be firmly rejected.  The focus of the WTO member countries should instead be on negotiating an agreement for an orderly rollback of most of the trade and investment rules put in place by and following the GATT Uruguay Round that created the WTO and the orderly phase out of WTO operations, including the disposition of its staff and assets. This will clear the way for the many other actions required to repair the damage of the Bretton Woods era.

IMF and World Bank

For the IMF and World Bank, we recommend the appointment of an international Decommissioning Commission for each institution to oversee phasing out its operations and disposing of its assets and liabilities. Half of the members of these bodies should come from the civil society organizations that have been instrumental in bringing to light their destructive impact. The original mandates of these institutions should be taken on by the new entities described here.

Unifying Global Governance under a Restructured UN System

Global governance functions are currently divided between the Bretton Woods institutions and the United Nations system—comprised of the United Nations secretariat; its specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and its various development assistance funds such as UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, and UNIFEM.  The UN system has by far the broader mandate and, despite its flaws, is more open and democratic.  In its practice, it has given much greater weight to human, social, and environmental priorities. The more secretive and undemocratic Bretton Woods institutions generally have taken a narrowly economistic view of the world and placed financial and corporate interests ahead of human and planetary interests.

Erskin Childers and Brian Urquhart in their 1994 report “Renewing the United Nations Systems” point out that the UN's founders clearly intended that responsibility for global economic affairs — including the overall supervision and policy direction of the Bretton Woods institutions — would fall within the jurisdiction of the Economic and Social Council of the UN General Assembly.  The scope of the UN's intended role in this regard is spelled out in Article 55 of the UN Charter, which provides that the United Nations shall promote:

  • higher standards of living, full employment, and conditions of economic and social progress and development;
  • solutions for international economic, social, health and related problems, and international cultural and educational cooperation; and
  • universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

Dividing governance of the global affairs of one world between two competing governmental systems is not wise policy. The complexity and interdependence of labor, health, food, human rights, environmental, trade, and investment issues is now much greater than in 1945 when the United Nations was established and the need for coherent global level policies is far more urgent.

A choice must be made between expanding the power and mandate of the Bretton Woods system to provide overall leadership on these complex issues at the global level, or to reaffirm the mandate of the United Nations and build its capacity to fulfill its intended function. Proposals to expand the mandate of the corporate-dominated Bretton Woods system appear to be in grave error from a human and planetary perspective.

While the United Nations has been less effective, its more open and democratic decision processes and its greater responsiveness to the will of the people have often resulted in more consensual agendas aligned with human and planetary interests.

There is evident need for international rules. To serve the whole of humanity, however, these rules must be based on the consent of the governed and enforcement must be left primarily to democratically elected local and national governments.  The decision processes of the United Nations largely align with these principles.  Limiting the powers and mandates of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO will create a greater space for a reformed United Nations to fulfill its intended functions and for people to act through their national and local governments to establish a policy framework consistent with the healthy authentic development of people and communities.

The time has come to reshape the system of global economic governance under the auspices of the United Nations -- providing it with the human and financial resources to fulfill its original mandate and introducing reforms intended to strengthen its function as a democratic governing body. This will require dismantling the Bretton Woods institutions and the regional development banks that operate as regional clones of the World Bank, moving essential functions relating to global economic governance to the United Nations, and purging the United Nations of corporate influence.