12 April 2023

For many, the idea of global governance is a scary one, to be avoided and rail against. Frequently discussed in purely undemocratic terms as an extension and expansion of power for global elites, it paints a picture of present day authoritarianism, only bigger.

But for the Berlin-based organisation Democracy Without Borders, it means quite the opposite – the completion of the incomplete. A truly democratic world.

That’s why they’ve set about not only building a movement to foster support for global governance, citizenship and democratic institutions, but a tool (currently in beta) to try it out, if only symbolically – without immediate real world power.

“The platform connects to the work of Democracy Without Borders in so far as it provides assistance relevant to research, development, and the implementation of democratic instruments and processes,” says Rasmus Tenbergen, founder and program co-director of the World Parliament Experiment. “Among them, for example, innovative forms of citizen participation such as models of electronic, direct or ‘liquid’ democracy.”

“One main intention of the project is to promote the idea of world democracy,” says lead developer, Robert Sell. “To basically get as many clicks as we can.”

“It might not mean immediate active participation, but it gets people thinking about the idea and what it means.”

World Federalism

The choice to focus on overcoming ingrained misconceptions and ideological hurdles is an understandable one. Global government is a touchy subject. There is a feeling that before meaningful progress can be made, the organisation must clearly communicate just what exactly it is they’re working towards.

“It’s basically world federalism,” says Sell.

Federalism in this context, according to both project leads, developers and the parent organisation Democracy Without Borders, would not mean an all-powerful global government as some might imagine.

Instead, the organisation argues that national sovereignty would be left largely intact – even improved via increased international cooperation and its flow-on effects, which they say would make a lot of domestic policy more effective.

The global component would quite explicitly deal only with those issues that are relevant on the global stage, such as combating climate change – issues around which the global population shares a sense of identity as global citizens.

“Being a Norwegian doesn’t mean you’re not a global citizen,” says Sell. “A national identity doesn’t mean you’re not a global citizen. There’s a hierarchy of priorities in government and a hierarchy of identities.”

Essentially, the belief is that democratic governance is missing a critical layer of identity and legitimacy.

That view is reflected in the platform itself, where depending on how one identifies nationally, one can vote on legislation being discussed presently in that country – as well as resolutions going before the various UN bodies.

The idea is to create a symbolic parallel vote that measures how things might go, if indeed bodies like the United Nations were exposed more directly to public input.

In that way, the platform aims to help build the case for a democratic United Nations Parliamentary Assembly – one of Democracy Without Borders’ central campaigns.

How it works 

The actual methodology is fairly straightforward. The World Parliament Experiment starts by ‘scraping’  legislative and other proposals from the websites of major governments and UN offices. In other words, it looks them up regularly and imports them into the platform.

New users can come along, participate in the vote, and have deliberative conversations around each new law or resolution. They can also create proposals of their own to deliberate and vote on in much the same way.

They can even delegate their vote to others – a ‘liquid’ democratic feature that is missing from a lot of platforms.

One major challenge however – which is familiar to most platforms in the participative and delegative space  – is that of identification. Perhaps not as critical as it is in platforms that deal with more binding democratic exercises, it is still a topic of concern.

However, Democracy Without Borders tends to look on this issue as another reason why global governance is so essential.

“We’ve been discussing this and short of the whole blockchain approach, we basically came up with a compromise solution where we’ll have a standard mobile two factor authentication for first time registration,” says Sell. “At least then you would need a new number to pretend.”

“But this problem exists mainly because there’s no global ID.”

Origins and Objectives

While the project in its current iteration has only been around for a few years, the idea behind it and first prototypes date back to the late 90s.

Very early on in the movement for global democracy, there was the idea that digital technology held the key to making it a reality. However, that promise has started to manifest only recently.

Now, the initiative is getting a lot more ambitious.

“Our hope is to build a secure online platform for discussion and decision-making that can be adapted to different scales and purposes,” says Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders, Andreas Bummel.

However in the short term, the project remains primarily experimental

“We support this initiative primarily as an effort that explores both the possibility of online global democracy and grassroots democratic engagement,” says Bummel.

And for now, hopes for engagement are more about informing than building a real working parallel digital government.

“Maybe you don’t want to sign up and you don’t want to vote,” says Sell. “That’s fine. Maybe you clicked on the website and are just thinking about the idea and seeing what it’s about. That’s also good.”

As with so many projects in digital democracy, active participation is an enormous challenge and user growth has been very slow. The experimental nature and the lack of tangible outcomes makes that an even greater challenge.

However, one thing that might counteract that and work to the project’s advantage is the global relevance. Rather than a specific neighbourhood, municipality or country, participation in the World Parliament Experiment is open to anyone from anywhere.

Global Representation

Global government might be a loaded term for some. But for the Democracy Without Borders movement, the problem is not the ‘global’ part. In many ways, global governance is already happening. The decision making and political machinations of global organisations and intergovernmental bodies tangibly affect the lives of citizens everywhere.

The problem is the type of governance itself. It’s just not democratic enough. In many cases, it’s not democratic at all. And people feel left out.

“The motivation behind starting the project was to create an instrument for world citizens to directly influence international political processes in all dimensions: polity, policy, politics,” says Tenbergen. “To counter the feeling of powerlessness and to establish a global sense of ‘we can make a difference’.”

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