Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century

Udo E. Simonis (Science Center Berlin; Germany)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Simonis, U.E. (2000), "Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 27 No. 2, pp. 160-168.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

“Embargo – Not for publication or broadcast until 12.00 pm EST, Monday, 10 May 1999” – a sticker on the cover‐page said. It must be an important announcement that would follow. And as it was on a book, it must be an important book. That is what this reader thought when he started reading.

And indeed, three US editors had coordinated another 26 authors (of whom 22 are from the USA), on a topic for which you would not, in the first instance, give credit to Americans: it is not on globalization of private industry but on the provision of global public goods. While markets are thought to be efficient in providing private goods, different mechanisms are needed for the provision of public goods; cooperation mechanisms, in particular, are needed when global public goods are at stake.

The main hypothesis of the book is that many crises dominating the international policy agenda today reflect an underprovision of global public goods. In three parts the book tries to verify this hypothesis: in a conceptional part (pp. 1‐64), in a part with six case studies (pp. 65‐416), and in a part on policy implications (pp. 417‐49). In the conclusion (pp. 450‐507), the editors summarize the major findings. A glossary, further reading and an index (pp. 509‐46) complete the book.

The authors and editors did not have to start from scratch. There is a long tradition on the theory of public goods, originating in David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1978 [1739]) and Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1976 [1776]). The systematic formulation of the theory began with Samuelson’s “The pure theory of public expenditure” (Samuelson, 1954) and Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action (Olson, 1971); these works analysed provision problems at length, and focussed on two characteristics of a public good, namely, its qualities of nonrivalry and non‐excludability. The application of the concept to global challenges started in the late 1960s, especially with Garret Hardin’s “The tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968), the most cited article ever on structural environmental problems. More recent contributions to the debate include Ruben Mendez’s International Public Finance (Mendez, 1992) and Todd Sandler’s Global Challenges: An Approach to Environmental, Political and Economic Problems (Sandler, 1997). To be sure, public good analysis has been applied to global problems, but so far there has been surprisingly little examination of what global public goods really are. It is here that the innovations with the new book start.

The concept of global public goods is (or will become) increasingly important for international cooperation under conditions of enhanced openness, growing systematic risks, and increasing numbers of transnational actors in both business and civil society. Global concerns are penetrating national agendas, and national concerns are becoming the subject of international debate, of policy coordination and harmonization. Based on the case studies (the second part of the book), a typology of global public goods is being developed to distinguish more clearly among three main classes, according to the collective action problem and the policy challenge they pose.

In class 1 are the natural global commons, such as the ozone layer and climate stability, where the collective action problem is one of overuse and the policy challenge is sustainability. The human‐made global commons belong to class 2, and encompass a range of diverse issues: universal principles and norms, the stock of scientific and practical knowledge, and transnational infrastructure, such as the Internet. For these global public goods, the main challenge is underuse, in the sense of lack of access, entry barriers or even repression. To class 3 belong the global policy outcomes, including peace, health, financial stability, freedom from poverty, environmental sustainability, equity and justice. Here, the policy challenge is one of undersupply. Compared to the goods of class 2, these goods are flow variables; a continuous effort is needed to ensure that they are supplied, while the goods in class 2 are stock variables; they have already been produced.

The global commons of classes 1 and 2 become policy issues when their scarcity or absence creates a global public bad. For the natural global commons, this mostly takes the form of overexploitation of natural resources – and thus the non‐sustainability of present policies and strategies. For the human‐made global commons, the problem is mainly one of unequal access – and hence growing disparities, such as those between rich and poor, North and South. When such overuse or underuse assumes critical proportions, these concerns move into class 3, global policy outcomes.

So far the theoretical focus of the book, which should basically be convincing and acceptable. The, probably, more important question as regards evaluation of the book, could be whether the concept of public global goods not only provides new analytical insights but also allows for new policy recommendations and their consensus‐oriented management. Here, the reader may become somewhat sceptical.

Still, the policy recommendations suggested by the various authors reflect the ample evidence of failures of markets, of government, and of international cooperation. They thus span a wide range of possible options – from correcting global public bads through market‐based mechanisms, to banking strongly on civil society, and to strengthening the role of the United Nations. The editors cluster these recommendations into three major tasks in order to guarantee an adequate provision of global public goods: closing the jurisdictional gap, the participation gap, and the incentive gap in international cooperation.

The “jurisdictional gap” refers to the discrepancy between the boundaries of global public goods – by definition essentially global – and those of today’s main locus of policy‐making, the nation‐state. Theoretically, this problem can be addressed either by strengthening supranational governance or by trimming issues back to the size of nation‐state, including new protectionist barriers. The authors, instead, prefer to follow a third path – creating a jurisdictional loop that runs from the national to the international and back to the national – and they sparkle with proposals: establishing national externality profiles, internalizing cross‐border spillovers, re‐engineering national approaches to international issues, linking national and global policy agendas, and policy dialogue on the emerging global society. Policy‐making, under conditions of globalization (with global public goods), entails the need to complement decentralization with centralization, and communality with diversity. In this part, the book is analytically strong but, unfortunately, rather weak on concrete measures of implementation.

It is different as regards the second gap, the “participation gap”. The key elements of the suggested institutional reforms in international cooperation are voice, access, and the power to contribute. Detailed recommendations are being suggested, from more equitable North‐South representation to new forms of cooperation between government, civil society and business (tripartism), to establishing a Global Trusteeship Council within the United Nations system that should “blow the whistle” in alerting the international community to emerging collective action problems. Without capacity convergence, the editors stress, today’s globalizing world will continue to be prone to crises – again a more theoretical argument.

As regards the third, the “incentive gap”, designing an international public incentive system is understood as an intricate matter that, however, is doable. Here, the authors refer to the existing Global Environmental Facility and the Multilateral Ozone Fund as well as to the planned mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol. The lessons from those experiences, with global natural goods, should be used to provide for adequate solutions to the other two classes of global public goods: from sufficient financing to establishing new facilities for conflict prevention and financial insurance.

The concept of global public goods, no doubt, is a fascinating concept. It gives impulses for additional thought, research, and also for political action. But whether those impulses really will be implemented, when confronted with vested interests and institutional sclerosis, remains to be seen.

To conclude, let us go back to my introductory remarks. Global Public Goods is indeed a significant announcement; it is an important book that should attract wide attention and many readers. And when this happens, one should overlook the slight discrepancy between the contents and the presentation of the book: in order to get into the headlines, the use of the title was imposed by an embargo, an inherently public good was privatised. But when the book is open to access in all the libraries worldwide, it again will become a public good. And so it may be with the provision of global public goods: despite many good arguments, there still may be many embargoes and detours ahead of us.


Hardin, G. (1968), “The tragedy of the commons”, Science, Vol. 162, pp. 1243‐8.

Hume, D. (1978) (orig. pub. 1739‐40), A Treatise of Human Nature, edited with an analytical index by L.A. Selby‐Bigge, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Mendez, R.P. (1992), International Public Finance: A New Perspective on Global Relations, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Olson, M. (1971), The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Samuelson, P. (1954), “The pure theory of public expenditure”, Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 36, pp. 387‐9.

Sandler, T. (1997), Global Challenges: An Approach to Environmental, Political, and Economic Problems, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Smith, A. (1976) (orig. pub. 1776), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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