This paper was presented at the Manitese conference titled "From
Utopia's Skies to History's Dust: Building solidarity and justice in
the world," Firenze, 20-22 April 2002.
Through concrete examples of threats to peace, health and economies,
this paper illustrates the failure in the provision and management of
public goods. It then proceeds to surface some of the critical issues
and challenges in addressing the provision of global public goods.
Finally, it presents a rough sketch of an alternative to global
At first glance, the provision of global public goods should be a
non-contentious issue. It is in fact a popular issue that attracts a
huge sum of financial resources, especially official development
assistance (ODA). The World Bank (2001) estimates that in the
mid-1990s, close to 30 percent of total ODA (or US$16 billion of total
ODA amounting to US$55 billion) was allocated to global public goods.
The provision of global public goods transcends conflicts relating to
nation, class, gender, race, and religion—at least on an abstract
level. It likewise has an inter-temporal character. A global public
good has "benefits that are strongly universal in terms of countries
(covering more than one group of countries), people (accruing to
several, preferably all, population groups) and generations (extending
to both current and future generations without foreclosing development
options for future generations)."
The concept of global public goods is actually an extension of the
definition of national public goods. Public goods have the following
- Non-rivalry in consumption: The use or consumption of one good by
a person or a group of persons does not prevent other persons or group
of persons from using or consuming such
- Non-excludable: The consumption of one good by a person or a
group of persons cannot restrict or exclude others from obtaining the
- Non-rejectable: Any person or group of persons cannot abstain from using the good.
Examples of global public goods abound: reduction of pollution,
prevention of communicable diseases, food security, peace, financial
stability, travel safety, and international communications. The
universal benefits of such examples of global goods are indisputable.
Policy makers or policy movers of all stripes—conservative, liberal and
radical—will not resist the vaccination of peoples to control the
HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio and tuberculosis. They will not object to the
reduction of gas emissions. They will not hinder the prevention of
famine and starvation. They will not oppose the taming of the
volatility of financial capital and the strengthening of the financial
architecture. Everyone—the poor and the well-off people as well as the
highly developed and the least developing countries—stands to benefit
The provision of a global public good can also reconcile social or
collective goals with self-interest. Take for example a private
environmental firm that is involved in the reduction of gas emissions
or a pharmaceutical company that manufactures vaccine. The company
expands its output and its market and thereby increases its profits at
the same time that it serves the public good.
In other words, we can cite good arguments that bolster the proposition
that the provision of global public goods is non-contentious. Yet, the
concept of global public goods does not exist in a vacuum. Power
relations, geopolitics, financial constraints, coordination failure,
rigid paradigms, monopolies (economic and political), and plain hubris,
inter alia, have adverse effects on the provision of global public
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