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Last week, I met up with 18 other World Social Science Fellows at LSE and the British Council for a seminar on global social governance. It was a very enjoyable group of people, and for an entire week, we listened, debated, networked, drafted — and also worked our way through various buffets. I applied for the fellowship with my ‘parallel institutions’ project, to find out more from other researchers around the world, and to learn about possibilities for ‘active citizenship’ in global social governance. Institutions such as the UN, WTO or IMF often appear rather monolithic and impenetrable, but surely they must be contested spaces like other institutions with potential openings for dialogue or intervention. As academics we often criticise these institutions, but often have only a shadowy idea as to what goes on inside and around them. Here, my question turned out to closely reflect that of Kirsten Ainley, who was one of the invited speakers: what role can civil society play? After working through the burgeoning (and often rather depressing) literature on global social governance, this question could be rephrased somewhat cynically as: how can citizens who are not multi-billionaires influence global social policy?

During the seminar, my question was of course not answered – otherwise my research would have ended there and then – but my feeling that global social governance is indeed a fluid rather than impenetrable space was confirmed. Academics at all career levels discussed their experiences of working with or inside institutions such as the World Bank or the EU Commission. These experiences covered the whole range of positive, negative, mundane, intimidating, but rather more on the mundane side as a whole: institutions appeared as spaces that were full of questions. Academics were frequently called upon for answers, evidence, expertise. Recommendations were not always taken, however, due to political reasons including competition with emerging new players in global governance. In fact, institutions of global social governance appeared oddly fragile. As Susanne MacGregor pointed out on the last day, we almost missed the World Trade Organisation’s shake-up and its possible dissolution while we were ‘locked up’ at LSE.

Overall, the seminar offered a mix of panels on topics relating to global social governance (with academics and policy makers), as well as presentations on funding, networking and publishing opportunities. It was especially helpful to hear the policy makers’ perspective and their interactions with academics. As academia is being reoriented both towards and away from policy (impact often requires policy impact while policy reports do not count in academic ranking exercises), interactions are simultaneously being reshaped. Policy-makers emphasised the extreme time constraints and lack of access to academic information and made suggestions as to how prepare academic input. They also hoped for a maturing of the new kinds of relationships that were being established between policy and academic research – currently they felt that it was still too much of a box-ticking exercise, but they also saw great potential for more ‘organic’ dialogue. Overall, a desire for a more multi-levelled academic engagement emerged – academics as ‘public intellectuals’, ‘critical friends’, ‘experts’ etc – and a wish for academics to always remind themselves about the purpose of their work.

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The fellows also got the chance to work with one another in small groups. These initially proved quite difficult to form, as we had many overlapping or occasionally very specific interests. My topic fitted both under the citizenship and the environment/economics theme, but as the citizenship cluster was a closer fit, I joined four other fellows (Tahu Kukutai, Lindsey Kingston, Pooja Ravi and Tatjana Kiilo) to debate the various tensions around citizenship we had encountered. Our discussions touched on statelessness, indigenous identity, austerity protests, privatisation and transnational citizenship, and we noticed that we were all using different concepts of citizenship (‘flawed’, ‘proper’, ‘overactive’, ‘contingent’, ‘functioning’ etc) that drew out a particular problem of current definitions and enactments of citizenship. After our second debate, we concluded that ‘citizenship is jacked’ and that we should write about it (watch this space!). Our focus, however, did not stop us from interacting with other clusters, so some more potential projects were being discussed and clusters became partly re-arranged.

Overall, some very interesting questions were raised over the course of the week, including:

  • Who holds the power in global social governance? What are the dynamics?
  • How is it that risks are being debated on a national level when they are shared across borders?
  • Are the problems with global or intergovernmental institutions indicative of their failure (the problems are too great) or potential (evidence of improvement and necessity)?
  • Is the North-South divide turning into a patchwork or continuum? (Developed states realising poverty on their own territories, developing countries having enclaves of wealth)
  • Does anyone still care about building welfare states & should countries have the right to not care at all?
  • How acceptable are proposed measures for carbon emission reduction?
  • How to bring people to a certain standard of living but within planetary limits?
  • What are the methods for exploring eco-sociality – the human as a social AND material being?
  • What would qualify as a crime against the environment?
  • Can legislation or development prevent war crimes/atrocities from happening?
  • What (and how) can you control when you are doing research with partners (governments, funders, corporations etc)?

Finally, another important question was posed in my direction, since I represented the University of Glasgow: what does Irn-Bru taste like and those strange ‘teacakes’ from the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony? At last one question that could be answered with a simple trip to the supermarket…

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I am hoping that the other questions will also get the attention they deserve in future academic work, and that relationships will be built with policy makers around them. Thanks everybody for a thought-provoking week!

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