Think Locally, Act Globally?


Global governance is increasingly polycentric: multiple heterogeneous institutions now address most major global problems. This phenomenon is common at the international level, as the regime complex literature makes clear (Raustiala & Victor 2004; Alter & Meunier 2009; Keohane & Victor 2011; Oberthür & Stokke 2011). But for this workshop we are concerned with two other forms of complexity: the emergence of governance that is (1) multi-scalar, with institutions operating at the international, regional, national, subnational and local levels, and (2) private as well as public. Our focus is how international institutions do, can and should interact with small-scale and private governance.

Elinor Ostrom and scholars in her tradition seek to explain the success (or failure) of collective action at small scales, such as rural communities, even without hierarchical governance (Ostrom 2010 a, b; Poteete et al. 2010). These scholars emphasize factors including small numbers of actors, face-to-face contacts and social capital, and identify a range of design principles common to cases of successful collective action. Yet specific local context also appears critical. Normatively, these scholars argue that “global” problems such as climate change must be addressed at multiple scales (Cole 2011). The local and transnational climate change activities of states and cities are well known (Betsill & Bulkeley 2006), but additional small-scale actions remain necessary.

The emergence of private governance has made the international system even more polycentric and heterogeneous. Numerous rule-making and operational schemes have been formed by civil society organizations, business, and multi-stakeholder groupings, as well as public-private collaborations (Abbott & Snidal 2009 a, b). In many issue areas these schemes are important participants in global regimes (Green 2011; Abbott, forthcoming). Even transnational schemes, moreover, often operate at relatively small scales; that is even more true of domestic private schemes, of which far less is known.

These trends raise many important questions, both for social science and for policy; for example: 

  • What types of interactions and relationships currently exist among institutions at different scales, and among public and private schemes? How do international institutions such as UNDP, UNEP and the World Bank interact with small-scale and private initiatives?
  • Can international institutions promote effective collective action at smaller scales, or is such action too dependent on specific local context?
  • Can international institutions learn from small-scale collective action, scaling up local solutions, or is the international environment too different?
  • Can international-local interactions disseminate global norms downward within society, for better implementation? Can they transmit local voices upward, for more participatory and better-informed global policy?
  • How do polycentric governance systems manage their complexity? Can international institutions improve system management (Abbott et al. 2011)?
  • What impacts do different forms of polycentric and multi-scalar governance have on outcomes? Can we identify successful models of interaction and management?

Given the difficulties of international collective action, both sets of questions are important for many global problems, including sustainability, climate change (especially adaptation) and global health.


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Betsill MM, Bulkeley H, 2006, “Cities and the Multilevel Governance of Global Climate Change” Global Governance 12 141–159
Cole DH, 2011, “From Global to Polycentric Climate Governance,” European University Institute Working Paper, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Global Governance Programme,
Green JF, 2011, “Order Out of Chaos: Public and Private Rules for Managing Carbon”, presented at American Political Science Association Annual Meeting
Keohane RO, Victor DG, 2011, “The Regime Complex for Climate Change” Perspectives on Politics 9 7-23
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--- 2010 b, “Polycentric Systems for Coping with Collective Action and Global Environmental Change” Global Environmental Change 20 550–557
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