What would global, national and local governance look like once Covid-19 is under control? A key emerging lesson from the current phase of the pandemic crisis is that the national state is still a relevant actor for these circumstances as the main epicenter of mediating the response against Covid-19. While governance remains diffused, some form of a “coherent” state has led the response, with some interesting cleavages related to subnational governments. A different issue altogether is the capacity of each national state to respond to a multi-dimensional crisis that does not discriminate borders or institutional structures, and whether this capacity will hold for the next phase. A sort of paradox has emerged that raises questions about how governance systems will use authority/political power, capacity, and public policy to manage and mitigate the Covid-19 crisis. What about multi-level governance? A new pattern of governance models are beginning to emerge across countries based on the Covid-19 response. These models seem still amorphous, combine some features of the classic governance models with the national state at the center, but at the same time have new emerging features, such as political power being used differently in different levels of government, new patterns of cooperation and competition within and across national boundaries, new capabilities that are much less state-centered, and civil society and citizens with different patterns of trust towards government. So, has the pandemic finally confirmed the crisis of current governance systems and is signaling the need for a “renewed” 21st-century governance we all have been waiting for?
Governance Immunodeficiency and Human Insecurity?
As I try to visualize the potential short-, mid-, and long-term governance scenarios post Covid-19, two fitting assessments from the 1990s come to mind to help frame today’s governance challenges. First, Jonathan Rauch’s assessed the state of governance in the U.S. in the 1990s based on the work of economist Mancur Olson. Rauch coined the term “demosclerosis” to describe a “government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt.” Rauch argued that the dramatic rise of interest-groups coupled with their self-interested demands on government, produced a paralysis of basic government functions because the general public interest was not being served. The high demand for government special treatment and benefits by interest groups and the lack of accountability, like a virus, was causing an inflammation of the joints that connect the larger democratic governance framework with constituencies. The national government was becoming ossified and immobile and was unable to connect with the average voter or effectively represent them. The institutional tissue that links representation with accountability to form the joint for effective democratic governance was broken or about to break, and a disease, “demosclerosis,” in which the immune system of democratic governance is attacked by populists and authoritarian waves, was weakening the lining of effective democratic governance. The Covid-19 demands have confirmed the spread of “demosclerosis” in and outside the United States, and have exposed cracks in many governance systems. In hindsight one can argue that “demosclerosis,” like Covid-19 manifests in many forms, but attacks the immune systems of national and local governance and weakens the social contract between the government and the governed. This despite the fact that since Rauch’s seminal assessment in the 1990s, more countries transitioned to more democratic forms of government. “Demosclerosis” helps to put in perspective the localized governance systems illness in a larger and more global governance insecurity context.
A second assessment that serves as a reference to analyze the current state of governance from a global perspective is the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report, in my opinion, one of the best reports in the series, which highlighted the tension between markets and governance, and between individual initiative and public policy. The main argument of the report was that for too long, the concept of security was shaped by the potential for conflict between states, equated with the threats to a country’s borders, and it justified countries to sought arms to protect their security. As was revealed by Covid-19, for most people across the world a feeling of insecurity arose more from the worries about daily life concerns than from the dread of military insecurity. Jobs, income, health, food, and environment insecurity took center stage.
Again, the Covid-19 experience confirmed across countries, even in the most developed ones, serious inequality issues, not only related to health services but also to economic vulnerability, digital accessibility, and food insecurity. The Covid-19 crisis confirmed a general human insecurity problem, not necessarily tied to the classical security-military connotation. Nearly three decades ago when the world was making a huge transition towards more freedoms and democracy, the 1994 Human Development Report was advocating for a long-term global solution that would have an impact on the national and local spaces. In order to resolve the human insecurity problem, the Report proposed a new institutional framework of global governance, one that defended the new frontiers of human security with more democratic partnerships between nations, as it explored the new frontiers of human security in the daily lives of the people, beyond the militaristic dimension. This vision centered on individuals and the sum of its collective concerns in relation to jobs, health, income, environmental, food, pandemics, and crime. Governance at each level (global, national, and local) under this proposal would have to have the capacity to discover early warning signals that could spur preventive diplomacy and policy in order to save a society from reaching a crisis point. And when and if the crisis point was reached, like with Covid-19, governance systems would be call to effective collaborative action.
However, Covid-19 surprised the entire world, and found little preparation and a reduced willingness to collaborate. The Covid-19 responses across the world have not only accentuated disparities in capacity and planning, but also reflected the current realities in local and national governance systems. South Korea, Iceland, Canada, Portugal, Switzerland, Uruguay, and Costa Rica dealt differently, but with relative efficiency, technology, early testing, community, solidarity, and discipline for social distancing, also reflecting high levels of government and interpersonal trust. The response from China, Russia, Belarus, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to name but a few, as expected have all reflected the authoritarian and opaque nature of their governance systems and their disregard for transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, populist and nationalistic regimes like Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines, have taken advantage of the pandemic to gain more power and become more authoritarian. The governments of the United States, United Kingdom and, Brazil have politicized and lagged their responses to serve their own self-interest, populist narratives, and identity politics, of course at the expense of the collective and broader interest.
Governance and Covid-19: Initial Lessons
In a pandemic like Covid-19, the epidemic calls the shots. Therefore, the response is continuous, and decision-makers have to walk a fine line and balance short-term political and policy narratives with evidence-based medium and long-term public health and economic threats. The magnitude and speed of a pandemic like Covid-19 demanded a coordinated local, national, regional, and international efforts, and key actors working together to carve an integrated response to deal with health, economic and political dimensions of the crisis. The ultimate goal of governance systems in a pandemic is to manage and reduce risks and impacts, and manage and increase mitigation, knowledge, and information. This is why the governance of pandemics is complex and monumental as it involves a whole of government approach and high levels of collaboration. At the same time, attitudes and behavior also need to be carefully managed to avoid a false sense of hope and security.
We are witnessing, how the Covid-19 threat affected every single inhabited space on earth. However, the response was divergent, even within countries, and political power and authority were used for different purposes. Departing from a definition that governance is the exercise of authority and is related to the notions of order and decision making, how have different governance systems responded to Covid-19? Some early lessons show that governance systems involve more complex mixes of intertwined relations, networks and regimes, and capabilities that are more diverse and seemingly more disconnected than was the case in the old nation state-centered governance world. At the same time, these new complexities do not change the fact that territory remains a fundamental underpinning of governance systems, and that these systems require much needed reforms, many already identified even before Covid-19.
The local, national, and global context for governance systems will change more rapidly once the recovery phase of the pandemic is underway. At this juncture, we can only imagine what the impact of the pandemic will be in the economy, health, safety net, and basic services. Responding effectively to the multiplicity of needs and priorities will be no small task. Governance frameworks will have to move towards a more balanced system, one that gradually redistributes capacity and resources from the top to the local level, while ensuring articulation with regional, national, and global initiatives. This is where a renewed type of multilateralism will come into play to support national and local democratic governance reforms.
The Fading Role of Multilateralism and Collaboration?
Another dimension of the governance response to Covid-19 is the global and regional ones. With so many international actors, like the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the myriad of regional organizations like the Organization of American States and, the Asian Development Bank, and a host of transnational civil society organizations, to name but a few, one would conclude that logically collaboration would take place, more so during a pandemic. However, the COVID-19 crisis has also showed how weak and fragmented these international and regional networks are to address the challenges in an effective manner. The plethora of global and regional governance institutions are part of a multi-level public sphere that in principle promotes collaboration and global solutions. But in practice the quality of their actions and the degree of collaboration during the pandemic leave much to be desired.
One can argue that before the pandemic the multilateral system was already in crisis. But the Covid-19 revealed the depth and extent of the crisis. A vacuum of global leadership, duplicative roles, slow internal structures, lack of adequate expertise, and mixed commitments to multilateralism, collaboration, and democratic governance are all factors that have impeded a more multilateral strategic role to manage the crisis. While the World Health Organization has been issuing guidance to countries on how best to respond to Covid-19, as well as coordinating scientific advice and evidence, and other global and regional actors have made public pronouncements, there has been little coordinated global political leadership to confront the pandemic and its likely adverse impact. For example, the lack of action by the UN Security Council, speaks volumes. It is true, a resolution on the Covid-19 pandemic is not a solution to the actual virus and will not offer protection, but it could have a powerful symbolic effect on unity, urgency, and re-commitment to the original values of multilateralism.
A key lesson emerging is that no single nation-state will be capable of dealing with current and post Covid-19 challenges. The question remains, what will be the role of multilateralism once the current phase of Covid-19 ends, and the recovery phase begins? The spotlight will be on strengthening multilateralism to help many countries revamp health systems, manage the adverse economic and social impact on income and employment, restructuring debt, restore trade and investment flow, prevent conflict, and promote peaceful resolutions and dialogue. A long list of issues that would need to be tackle and will test the global and regional governance systems. Above all, the crisis will be a test of internal sovereignty and resilience. Covid-19 already exposed the competence, capacity, and weakness of national and local governance systems. Authoritarian, nationalists, and populists will sure want to seize the moment and find arguments in support of their own selfish views. In this context, multilateralism has a powerful leadership, advocacy, and convening role to play, and to promote and uphold dialogue, collaboration, accountability, and transparency as universal values of governance systems. For example, it is inconceivable to have as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council countries like Venezuela, whose government has been cited as a constant violator of human rights or Brazil, whose far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, has expressed contempt for the concept of human rights. This illustrates one of the many current weaknesses of the system, and the urgency to reform multilateralism to higher standards and credibility. Ultimately, global governance will matter more in the next phase of the Covid-19, which will determine the fate of millions of people. It will also be an opportunity to reassess the structure of global and regional organizations and realign them with current reality.
Short, Medium and Long Term Possible Scenarios?
The world might be heading to its worst crisis since World War II. The economic and public health toll is already providing clues of what is yet to come. Even if the impact is brief, the recovery will need an unprecedented response of local, national, and global governance systems. If the impact is protracted, the crisis will place even more pressure on governance systems and will challenge its resilience. Much will depend on how the trends in the two graphs above showing the economic and health dimensions of the pandemic evolve over time. While there are still many unknowns, what may we expect of governance systems in the short-, medium, and long-term?
Continue the Path/Business as Usual: In the short-term most countries will continue to behave in the same way they managed the pandemic. How governments amass and use political power to respond to the recovery and post-crisis phase of the pandemic will follow divergent patterns. For example, on the on hand, some countries will likely have to implement a package of carefully balanced responses that combines imposing and exercising authority to maintain order and make decisions, with a capacity to understand when to temporarily limit certain rights, how to maintain minimal freedoms, promote respect for the rule of law, accountability, and oversight, as well as allow citizens to exercise their right to protest, report (through free media), and even hold elections. In these countries the role of the legislative and judicial branches of government to check on executive power, and of an active and vigilant civil society will be key. On the other hand, other countries will unfortunately try to use this opportunity to strengthen their authoritarian bend, by imposing tougher restrictions on freedoms, and will try to curtail the rule of law, oversight, political opposition, media, and citizen participation. In these countries the democratic governance systems will further deteriorate. In between these two scenarios, most countries will likely have to navigate a continuum between more uncertainty and democratic resilience in their governance systems, many already weakened before the pandemic. These countries will have to endure stress and higher demands from citizens to find solutions, and many of these countries will likely backslide into more non-democratic forms of governance and in the worst-case scenarios, conflict within and between countries could ensue. In any of the short-term scenarios the risk of corruption will be high, and governance systems will have to apply maximum vigilance and intolerance for corrupt behavior in any of its manifestations.
The national and local scenarios will have to consider the changing power dynamics and diverging norms and values affecting global governance systems, and vice versa, as the global governance system has to also think of the impact of its action or inaction in this interdependent world. A preview has already been given during the pandemic, for example: the U.S.-China relation, arguably the two most powerful countries in the world, and how their bilateral relationship may increase geopolitical instability and the greater chance of conflict; the Russia-Saudi Arabia oil price war and its impact, and its effect on commodities and countries whose income depends solely on oil; and, the response of the global financial institutions. In addition to pressures to local and national governance systems from within, transnational issues, such as migration, trade, and cyberwarfare, will also add further pressures across nation-states.
Medium-and long-term scenarios: The pandemic has confirmed and reaffirmed that governance systems across the world have deep and entrenched challenges. On the medium- and long-term horizons, there is an opportunity to strengthen, complement and/or reform governance systems. For old and new democracies, how to cure the “demosclerosis” syndrome is a top priority, and for non-democratic regimes the challenge will be making the transition away from the so-called dictatorship syndrome. At the same time, citizens also have to continue to step up and consolidate their vested interest in the quality of their governance systems. After all, democratic governance is not only an attribute of power and elected officials, it is also about citizens beyond voting in elections, and also about their ability to pressure, demand, exercise their oversight role, and shape policy in between elections.
As mentioned above, the governance system framework has to change towards a more balanced system, one that gradually redistributes capacity and resources from the top to the local level, while ensuring articulation with regional, national and global initiatives. This does not imply a mere dispersion of power to local decision-makers. At the center of the new governance model, should be oversight, accountability, evidence-based research, and coordination of vertical and horizontal networks across multiple dimensions. The idea is to boost resilience, or the capacity of the socio-political order to sustain pressure by new arrangements or institutional innovations that do not necessarily modify the entire system, but key components of the system, in particular, those associated with performance, redefining the purpose of public institutions and promoting behavioral change. Such reform will require mechanisms for greater flexibility in decision making while relying on citizens participation and input as a large source of accountability and oversight. It will also require a robust investment in collecting and analyzing the evidence on the effects of the reform process.
While the dynamic of change and reform will vary according to local and national circumstances, governance systems should be moving away from current ineffective structures into the next generation of democratic governance. This is an opportunity to relaunch and renew democratic governance in a way that people feel represented and that they have the power to hold their governments and elected officials accountable. Technology could revitalize the proximity of different nodes, whether global, national, or local, and promote for closer involvement of global, national, and local citizens to reinvent democracy for increased human security. But governance engineering will be needed to design models, as well as mobilize and leverage financial and non-financial resources for investment. Humans have built great civilizations, learned to adapt and coexist and with the exception of wars and internal conflicts, humans have learned to live in relative peace. However, reforms have seldom come from entrenched politicians, as it is in their self-interest to remain in power indefinitely as a form of livelihood. Change has mostly come from citizens and their demands. Democratic governance systems will evolve only if governments and citizens work towards curing or treating the syndromes and working together to treat the tumor while limiting the side effects. Amidst all of the pessimism spread by Covid-19, there is hope that this crisis offers an opportunity to evolve in the design of our governance systems to become more inclusive and resilient.