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"You Won’t Find Wisdom Up A Lamp-Post"

December 23, 2009

Has anyone else noticed a surprisingly large amount of derisive commentary on the role of non-governmental groups at Copenhagen? Take, for example, this startlingly blunt editorial in the Australian a few days ago:

ever since [the 1992 Rio Meeting] self-accredited ambassadors for everything and everybody from polar bears to poor people have sought to bend sovereign states to their will at international meetings. The chaos at Copenhagen demonstrates what happens when they do, when international relations stop being about sovereign states and blocs of like-minded nations negotiating immensely complex issues and become an opportunity for slogan-chanting, empire-building activists, who adopt causes as careers in the way other people become teachers or accountants and assume that they alone can save the world.

It concludes:

On Wednesday, the activists were expelled from the Copenhagen conference – leaving the grown ups to get some work done.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about this editorial.
On the one hand, the antics of groups like GreenPeace add to the surreality of the whole event when they do things like climb lamp posts:

As Andrew Bolt commented, “you don’t find wisdom up a lamp-post.” And Frank Furedi points out the true irony that wisdom is precisely what each group expects the other to find in its respective domain:

In this comic drama, climbing lampposts is presented as an initiative that is morally superior to the diplomatic negotiations. The organisers of this spectacle appear to agree, which is why lamppost climbers are treated as if they are the voice of the people, whose job it is to keep the proceedings real. Outwardly, world leaders defer to their moral authority. 

It’s hard to see how this kind of stuff helps. And it’s easy to suspect that these groups are in it more for their own personal glory and gratification than anything else. After all, working quietly on the sidelines for meaningful, if incremental policy advance is far less glamorous than chaining yourself to a coal train:

It also requires nuanced understanding of the political process, and patience for the great variety of interests and values must be balanced. Oh, and compromise. Not very exciting.

But I’m not ready to dismiss the role of NGOs entirely (and let’s remember there’s a VERY wide spectrum). The elitist tone of the Australian’s editorial implies two assumptions:

  1. that sovereign governments are the only legitimate voices when it comes to international negotiations on global issues such as climate change, and
  2. that the outcome of Copenhagen would have been any more meaningful absent the clowning, meddlesome civilians.

The latter is highly dubious, and the former presents a very interesting problem for global governance. High profile groups with huge budgets, such as OxFam, Conservation International, and the WWF, have a lot of clout. They clearly have a role, but what should that role be?

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