The Elephant and the Meter: Valuing and Evaluating Global Governance

Assessing international support for saving the earth’s green lungs as unsolicited interference into national politics; withdrawals from landmark global climate change agreements and international monitoring regimes for the peaceful use of nuclear power; conflicts about burden-sharing in providing international security; global paralysis in the face of outrageous humanitarian crisis around persistently unresolved war situations; new global trade wars – the contestation of global governance solutions and the renationalisation of politics around the world has taken up speed.

This trend not only jeopardises existing political arrangements we have commonly agreed upon as a global community of people(s) to govern joint challenges on a planetary scale. It confronts us with the problem of rendering the benefits of the widespread, multilevel, complex, yet essential network of global governance structures clearly visible to reveal the vital interconnectedness they provide for organising world affairs.

In line with Dag Hammarskjöld’s conviction that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell – and extending this insight to global governance structures in general – the present stage in global (governance) history requires a moment of reflection on how best to make the wealth, benefits, necessity and challenges of global governance accessible to value it for what it is, the essential safety net for global human interactions.

In the context of diagnosing the real state of global governance, we need to talk about what global governance really is and how its achievements for humanity are best measured and treasured. Within this debate, apart from current political trends, we need to discuss its definitions and ways of measuring it that pay tribute to key concerns related to quantifying and qualifying it.

Such reflection is yet not just an academic petitum. It contributes vitally to the debate on revaluing global governance structures as the essential means for global political solutions in an era in which problems spread beyond national borders. The extension of political problem-solving arenas beyond such borders and the scaling-up of the political space beyond the national sphere consequently need to follow in order to design adequate policy solutions.

For nearly 30 years, governance, and especially good governance, is discussed around the world as the key ingredients for accountable political performance, efficient public affairs management, proper organisation of political power-citizen relations, and human well-being itself. In its broad understanding, good governance forms the basis for the proper organisation of political affairs based on transparent administrations, sustainable regulatory structures, high capacity levels and low levels of corruption. More recently, it is also seen as a guarantor of peace and a remedy against terror.

The governance concept emerged in the early 1990s, reflecting the impact of globalisation and regionalisation on the extension of political structures and arenas beyond the nation state, like for instance in the case of the European Union, to grasp the complexity of multilevel, multilayered and multitiered political patterns.

With a new focus to structural and procedural realities of polycentric politics in regional and global contexts, the debate turned the attention towards key features of contemporary statehood and multilevel political interrelations in global governance arrangements. In this understanding, global governance structures are a consequence of globalisation of politics that impacts on nation states, regional and local political actors, and international political institutions as well as organisations alike. Decoupling of politics from national contexts goes hand-in-hand with new, no longer territorially bound forms of political problem-solving, that result in the functional and no longer territorial construction of political space. The expansion of political processes across political levels; the interdependence of decision-making at different levels; the multiplication of access points to decision-making; the increased number of relevant state and non-state actors; the interlinking of supranational and intergovernmental governance modes; as well as cross-level intra- and intergovernmental network relations, coordination, and negotiation are observed as a consequence.

With its profound emphasis on interlinkages and interrelatedness, the global governance perspective contests the international relations’ perspective on nation states as the key problem-solving units within an anarchical international system. Its central narrative pays tribute to the essential changes that followed the collapse of the bipolar international system. It highlights interlinked structures of political authority and interaction as well as cooperation between governments, public administrations, and transnational societal actors in circumstances, in which a superior sovereign level is missing.

Global governance results from and manifests the transformation of the political space beyond the interaction of nation states including civil societies’ worldwide activities. It embraces transnational social movements and organisations, private-public network interactions, and private authority within a global system of formal and informal institutions of inter- and transnational rule-setting resulting a differentiated global governance architecture.

Today, global governance has become a central perspective on world politics. It grasps the impact of global policymaking at different levels of the international system; the emergence of international and regional orders and new forms of political steering or social norms as well as sovereignty; and decision-making competences and authority at the global level. Global governance is yet also charged with intangible aspects and normative interpretations. It frames debates and political action on global problems that are meant to balance outcomes of globalisation, such as the participation in wealth or human well-being. With this normative impact, it lays the ground for common global rules, ethics, norms, values, paradigms, standards. In such a manner, one of the main goals of governance at the global level is to regain control over globalised political and social interactions that otherwise remain potentially unregulated as they are out of the reach of nation states’ control. Reflections on the provision of global public goods, the development of global paradigms such as Sustainable Development or the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ within UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are cases in point for such normative impact.

To value global governance solutions for regulating problems humanity faces, we must constantly evaluate and assess their benefits for the organisation of global politics. Yet, while featuring prominently within the political and academic debate since the 1990s, measuring global governance represents a difficult endeavour as one must constantly pay tribute to the complexity of this over-conceptualised, yet incoherently defined ‘elephant’ called global governance.

The starting point for measuring must be honest reflections on what possibly can be measured, what practically is measured, and what problematically lays beyond the boundaries of governance measurement tools. Global governance is a multidimensional and multifaceted phenomenon of global political and institutional practice. It is not measurable per se and hence requires sometimes very complex aggregations of indicators and statistical data to capture its characteristics. Its measurement requires context to understand its impact and flaws and reflections on aggregations are open to contestation as they are constructed approximations to reality that measure and frame reality at the same time.

Concrete measures of global governance always reflect the political, institutional, legal, cultural, social, and geographical contexts from which they stem and are applied. Their conceptual nature varies according to their purpose, usage, and developers. Their adaptability make governance measurement a popular, yet contested instrument of global, regional, national, and local reach.

Such contestation is even magnified as governance measures are required to perform in most different systemic contexts for very diverse actor groups even if the instruments themselves remain targeted on evaluating political structures and processes no matter if they are used for rankings, ratings, reforms, advocacy or research. Such required fitness for multi-purpose applicability creates challenges not only for designing governance measures, but also for the reform of governance systems they evaluate. Assuming, however, that governance measures could be defined homogenously, would fall victim to the mistake of creating ‘clinical’ measures detached from real world context.

Compared to the broad variety of governance and good governance measures, the ecosystem of global governance measurement is still un(der)inhabited and in its conceptualisation phase. Some approaches propose to differentiate global governance structures by their level of fragmentation, analysing their degree of ‘institutional integration’, ‘norm conflicts’ involved, and related ‘actor constellations’. Different forms of ‘global governance architectures’ are differentiated ranging from ‘conflictive fragmentation’ over ‘cooperative fragmentation’ towards ‘synergistic fragmentation’ (Biermann et al. 2009). Moreover, interesting approaches are offered in measuring different degrees of global governance performance identified around the interrelated characteristics of speed, ambition, participation, and equity. As within the debate about governance indicators, any future conceptualisation of global governance metrics however also needs to focus on the development of actionable, practical, and concrete measures that can be contextualised and transferred to different levels of global political interaction in order to shape common understandings for the intrinsic value of global governance for progress around the world.

It is through robust and rigorous evaluation of global governance arrangements that their value for the collective regulation of planetary problems at global level helps revalue such structures for the rules-based delivery of public goods and the protection of global commons at international level. In times in which contestation has become a frequent reflex in politics, taking stock and assessing global governance remains essential for generating knowledge on why global governance matters and how global politics should be designed to best impact on world affairs.

Within TRIGGER, we work enthusiastically and across disciplinary borders on new data collections that take stock of various aspects and patterns of global governance and the EU’s role in it.

Stay tuned for our evaluation and valuation of global governance and connect to discuss!

Author: Gaby Umbach

European University Institute


An in-depth reflection on the topic can be found here:
Umbach, Gaby: Measuring (Global) Governance – The Potential, the Practical and the Problematic Assessment of Governance within and beyond the State, in: Triandafyllidou, Anna (ed.): Global Governance from Regional Cultural Perspectives: A Critical View, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 45-69.