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The Democratic Legitimacy of Public-Private Rule Making: What Can We Learn from the World Comission of Dams?

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Monday, October 31, 2005 - 04:27

This article attempts to provide answers to one specific and one general question: How should we evaluate the performance of the World Commission of Dams in terms of its democratic legitimacy? And what does the evaluation of the commission's performance tell us about the legitimacy of global rule making in more general terms? Based on these questions, the article comes to two main conclusions. First, the democratic legitimacy of the World Commission of Dams' standard-setting process can be challenged in several ways. Second, the difficulties of determining the commission's legitimacy in relation to other mechanisms of rule making demonstrate that we still lack a theoretical understanding of what the idea of democratic governance beyond the nation-state will entail in practice.
The author argues that the World Commission on Dams (WCD) serves as a good starting point for learning about the legitimacy of global rule making. Established in 1998 as a trisectoral network that included members of governments, civil society, and business, the WCD in its two-year deliberations developed a catalog of principles and guidelines for future dam building.

The WCD process has a mixed record if evaluated according to absolute or ideal standards of democratic legitimacy. On the one hand, the process achieved a relatively broad participation of affected actors, and its recommendations rest on the support of the major stakeholder groups. On the other, the three categories of (inter)governmental, business, and civil-society actors do not adequately reflect the actual patterns of affectedness. The fact that a small and select group of insiders decided what constituted stakeholder groups can, from the perspective of democratic theory, hardly be legitimated. In addition, the WCD process granted all interests equal treatment, whereas a rights-based approach would have required a much more differentiated consideration of whom to include and in what ways.

Evaluation of the WCD from a democratic-legitimacy perspective should also involve a comparison between the WCD as an instance of public-private rule making and an intergovernmental negotiation process as an instance of public rule making. The result of any such comparison is thus likely to be that both processes suffer from different kinds of democratic deficits. For example, whereas public-private rule making may be more inclusive than intergovernmental processes, it suffers from the lack of formal accountability, specially for NGOs and corporations.

These difficulties demonstrate that we are still far from a theoretical understanding of what the idea of democratic governance beyond the nation entails in more practical and concrete terms. Thus, the normative evaluation of world politics faces similar challenges as its empirical analysis. For the latter, it is suggested that we reconsider our conceptual frameworks. The author puts the example of James Roseneau's proposal to speak no longer of international politics, but rather of global governance.

Source: Global Governance, 11 (2005), 65-83.

Attached files pdf_022_World_Commission_on_Dams-2.pdf ( B)