Citizens’ assemblies can help save the world order
24 Jan 2020|

On 24 October, the world will mark the 75th birthday of the United Nations and the liberal international order. Most agree that this framework—comprising the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other multilateral institutions—needs to be updated to address the challenges of climate change, widening inequality and slowing economic growth. But global-level reform will not be possible without first building more cohesive and sustainable societies. And one way to do that is through ‘citizens’ assemblies’ of the kind pioneered by Ireland and other countries.

In 2019, several crucial international institutions once again proved ill-equipped for today’s challenges. The European Union remained paralysed amid the United Kingdom’s torturous Brexit process. The Trump administration sidelined the World Trade Organization by blocking appointees to its dispute-settlement body. And the UN suffered a major setback when Chile pulled out of hosting last month’s climate conference.

These examples suggest that our ability to marshal collective responses to major challenges is under threat. But reforming any one multilateral institution won’t fix the problem if its member states—and the communities they represent—remain divided along political, social and economic lines. After all, the Brexit crisis is not about EU decision-making in Brussels; it is about polarisation in the UK. The WTO’s crisis stems from gridlock in Washington and disagreement among member states over how to update the rules of trade. And Chile’s last-minute cancellation was a consequence of social unrest in that country, not a lack of enthusiasm among international leaders.

Rather than focusing on the pinnacle of the global-governance pyramid, we should be tending to the fractures in its base. And yet, in many countries around the world, divisions among voters have made it increasingly difficult for political leaders to implement reforms. Voters are increasingly polarised, and politicians who try to find common ground are often punished at the ballot box.

Ireland offers a promising model for escaping this catch-22. For decades, abortion was political kryptonite for Irish policymakers. But then Ireland tried a sociopolitical experiment that is fit for our age of division: it convened a citizens’ assembly to devise abortion legislation that a broad base of voters could support.

The Irish assembly selected 99 citizens (and one chairperson) at random to convene a body that was ‘broadly representative of society as reflected in the Census, including age, gender, social class, regional spread, etc.’ As such, it achieved a much wider diversity of views than was found in the established political system. But the assembly also followed rules that were designed to foster unity. As in many parliaments, members had an equal opportunity to speak, and all deliberations were public. But from the start, members also pledged to respect each other’s viewpoints and to sit at the same table as those with whom they disagreed.

The public closely followed the assembly’s proceedings, creating a unique sense of broad-based political participation. People cared deeply about the topic being discussed, but they also learned to appreciate the views held by those on the other side of the table or TV. Ultimately, the assembly issued recommendations, including legalising abortion, which were then put to the public in the form of a referendum. Many of its proposals are now law.

If we want to overcome political divisions elsewhere in the world, we should champion this citizen-assembly model. By design, deliberative gatherings of ordinary citizens—whose primary task is to reach agreement, rather than get re-elected—can bypass political antagonism and move towards pragmatic solutions to specific issues. They can’t replace democratically elected legislatures, but they should supplement them when needed.

Similar ‘stakeholder’ approaches have helped elected leaders confront major challenges in other cases. In France last year, the yellow-vest protesters softened their tone once President Emmanuel Macron organised a ‘grand debate’ for citizens to engage directly in town-hall-style meetings across the country. In Belgium, a recent gathering of stakeholders in Antwerp produced a resolution to settle disagreements over a major infrastructure project after decades of inaction. And in Gdansk, Poland, a citizen assembly achieved what Tin Gazivoda of the Open Society Initiative for Europe describes as ‘binding changes in city policy on flood mitigation, air pollution, civic engagement, and the treatment of LGBT people’.

Once our societies have become more united around at least some common ground, it will be easier to create momentum towards solving international problems. When people are satisfied and optimistic about the direction of their lives at home, they are more willing to take on the larger challenges that they share with people elsewhere in the world. Here, too, we should apply some of the same principles: international governance should reflect the diversity of international society, not just elites or other select groups.

This, then, is my wish for the year ahead: that we mend national- and local-level divisions through citizens’ assemblies, and that we bring the same stakeholder approach to our international institutions. We must move quickly if we are to solve the major challenges of our time, from climate change and rising inequality to slowing growth and new concentrations of power—all of which threaten the wellbeing of citizens everywhere.