Global Public Goods

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= Global "Commons are public goods which are deemed important to the international community; cannot, or will not, be adequately addressed by individual countries; and are thus best addressed multilaterally and collectively." [1]


From the Wikipedia:

"In traditional usage, a pure global public good is a good that has the three following properties:

  • It is non-rivalrous. Consumption of this good by anyone does not reduce the quantity available to other agents.
  • It is non-excludable. It is impossible to prevent anyone from consuming that good.
  • It is available more-or-less worldwide.

This concept is an extension of American economist Paul Samuelson's classic notion of public goods to the economics of globalization.

The traditional theoretical concept of public goods does not distinguish with regard to the geographical region in which a good may be produced or consumed. However, the term "global public good" has been used to mean a public good which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable throughout the whole world, as opposed to a public good which exists in just one national area. Knowledge has been used as a classic example of a global public good. In some academic literature, it has become associated with the concept of a common heritage of mankind."



A local public good benefits all the members of a local community, possibly to include the citizens of more than one country.

A national public good benefits all the citizens of a state.

A domestic public good benefits all the members of a community situated within a single state. National public goods are domestic public goods, but domestic public goods need not be national public goods.

A regional public good benefits countries belonging to a geographic territory.

A global public good benefits all countries and, therefore, all persons.

An international public good benefits more than one country. Global and regional public goods are both international public goods. However, some international public goods may be neither regional nor global. The public good of collective defence under NATO, for example, applies to North America and Europe," (


To Refute Claims of ‘Global Public Goods’

James Quilligan:

"Over the past few decades, the intergovernmental system has proclaimed its capacity to meet the needs of the world’s population and environment through global public goods. This concept -- a hybrid of Keynesian internationalism and corporate/financial neoliberalism -- illustrates the lack of understanding and vision in the present management of the global commons. By the Samuelson/Buchanan/Ostrom definition, non-rivalrous and non-excludable public goods are said to be provided by a sovereign government to the citizens within its jurisdictional borders. But this model is virtually meaningless at the multilateral level where is no representative authority (either through individual states in association or a global institutional framework) to provide public goods to the citizens of the world.

When a state competes across borders for economic resources (commodities, investment, credit) or political resources (strategic surpluses, military advantage, diplomatic sanctions), these goods are certainly rivalrous. Likewise, when a state fails to provide food, developmental assistance or technological transfers to alleviate poverty in other nations, millions of people are clearly excluded from access to these goods. In reality, then, the propaganda bubble behind ‘global public goods’ is fueled by the market forces of rivalry and excludability inherent in private goods (which are profit-driven for the benefit of shareholders, rather than equity-driven for the masses). National governments simply do not have the interdependent power or legitimacy -- nor are they designed -- to protect, manage and distribute resources for the world’s people as a whole.


That’s why people from all nations need to refute multilateral assertions about the saving graces of global public goods. It’s time for a rational conversation on the norms, rights and duties of every citizen for global common goods: the shared resources that must be negotiated and organized by the world’s people themselves. "

(source: draft of an essay for a book on the Commons, to be published by the Heinrich Boll Foundation)

Discussion 1

From an article by Milton Fisk: Global Public Goods and Self-Interest

Problems associated with global public goods

1. Milton Fisk:

"In turning to global public goods, I will assume that the notion of public goods in question is the new one elaborated in terms of social goals rather than the standard one I have criticized. I shall lay out several vexing issues about global public goods, and then in the last two sections, address those issues using the new concept of public goods.

First, there is the statist view of public goods. We are used to thinking of public goods as institutions that are funded by a state and accountable to the state considered as a formation of the public. They are institutions since their existence calls for guarantees that no natural object can provide. Even those public goods thought of as ‘commons’ are always hedged around with customs or more formal institutions. In the absence of such guarantees, a dominant power in an area could distribute water, for example, in a way that denies adequate access to subordinate powers. The guarantees of access as well as the funds for maintenance seem to suggest that public goods are parts of states. Yet with global public goods we lack a counterpart to the state, which has played such a prominent part in national public goods. There is as yet nothing that can be considered a global state. If, though, we try to make do with something less than a state, we run into difficulties. For one thing, there is no coercive force sufficient to back up either a call for funds or guarantees needed for equitable access.

A second problem has to do with the dominance of self-interest. There must be cooperation in the maintenance of public goods. Without it people, or nations, will go their separate ways pursuing particularist solutions for what are in fact general problems. A familiar Hobbesian assumption about nations is that they function only in self-interested ways. Cooperation can of course be compatible with self-interest. This can be illustrated in the case of the effort to reduce ozone depletion by the abatement of chloroflurocarbons. Here international cooperation satisfied national interest. The cost to the United States, for example, of its share of global CFC abatement, as called for by the Montreal Protocol, was less than the health benefits to it. But there are many cases where it seems that self-interest rules out cooperation. This may be the case with the cooperation called for by the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas abatement for slowing global warming. It is estimated that the cost to the US for its share of greenhouse gas abatement, as called for at Kyoto, is near to or greater than the cost of the environmental damage of even a doubling of those gases. The general problem, then, is whether at least the powerful nations will prefer self-interest over cooperation, thus pulling the rug out from under efforts to form certain crucial global public goods.

A third problem has to do with disagreements among nations over social goals. It is hard to judge what national opinion might be, but gauging global opinion seems to take us into the realm of pure speculation. This doubt is important since a public good is not something a private individual or elite can create. It is an instrument for advancing toward a widely agreed upon social goal. Of course, even as an instrument, a public good must be a matter of agreement, for without it cooperation is difficult to muster.

It is because the world is bisected in so many different ways that the notion of global agreement on social goals seems remote. To overcome this problem, Amartya Sen has suggested that we cease to think in terms of public goods as universals and instead think of them as pertaining to strands of affiliation across the world population, such as class, gender, and professional identity. Within each of these strands, it would not be utopian to think of arriving at agreement on social goals. It of course true that it would be easier to get agreement within these strands. But many of these strands would never get beyond provincial demands were it not for their ability to project themselves into a broader public. To overcome such a provincialism, it is, though, necessary to deal with the problem of agreement across various strands of affiliation." (

2. James Quilligan: don't confuse them with global common goods!

"The postwar system identified a new approach - peace (the UN), development (World Bank), loans (IMF), trade liberalization (GATT > WTO) -- these came to be thought of as providing international public goods provided by the club of sovereign states in their role as international caretakers -- liberal internationalism caught up with this idea and defined it as global public goods in 1999 (thank our friend, Inge Kaul, for much of the work on this) - the idea is that the global club of liberal states provide public goods to the international community just like domestic states provide public goods within their own nations ---- of course, other wings of internationalist thinkers do not agree with the idea of global public goods, but that's beside the point -- the main problem has been that alternative sources of development finance (a field I've specialized in since 1978) have been stuck inside the machinery of liberal internationalism -- within this framework, global public goods can only be provided through interstate infrastructure (institutions, treaties, conventions) -- there are a whole range of common goods that have been coopted by the international system (the seas, the atmosphere, outer space, global health, peace and security, to name a few) -- so the problem has been that engaging in a dialogue about 'global goods' immediately gravitates toward what people are most familiar with, which is global public goods (along with the global private goods of multinational corporations) -- the commons get little traction at the international level, primarily because of the obstacles emanating from state sovereignty -- states want to have it both ways, domestically and internationally -- as I've said many times, global public goods is a meaningless concept, since there is no real global governance to provide public goods to the global public in the same way that a state provides public goods to the people within its borders -- scaling the commons up from the local to the global is challenging, particularly when it comes to defining global commons goods -- but the time will have to come when global citizens identify cross-border resources as their planetary rights and therefore as commons goods - states will eventually devolve power downward to the people managing their own commons and upward to global commons institutions that will support the interests of the global commons." (email, October 2011)

Resolving problems about global public goods

Milton Fisk:

Statism and self-interest

"What is needed for global public goods is more a cosmopolitan commitment than a world state. This would be a commitment to improve social existence everywhere through broad based agreements to coordinate autonomous forces. In recent years in South Africa, where the AIDS epidemic has hit hardest, there was coordination between a various forces to gain access to essential medicines. There was Doctors without Borders, the South African Defiance Campaign, and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). The multinational pharmaceuticals were ready to take actions against South Africa if its law that threatened patent rights was to be implemented. The campaign against the narrow interests of the multinationals, against the wavering of the government of South Africa, and against the defense of patents by the wealthy nations succeeded in making a modest step forward toward turning drugs into global public goods. The kind of cosmopolitan commitment made by these non-governmental forces will be vital in the struggle for global public goods.

What is lacking in such a coordination of forces is the permanence that makes for a robust potential. It is imperative to institutionalize the coordination to achieve this permanence. The institutionalization need not, though, call for a world state. After all, the multinationals themselves coordinate their activities in pursuit of their narrower goals through the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, and they are neither states nor parts of a world state. Of course, as understood here, multinational corporations, despite their global reach, have no cosmopolitan commitment, since their commitment is not to social improvement everywhere but to their own profitability. Still, the institutions that emerge from cosmopolitan commitments may have to rely on states in numerous ways, just as the institutions that promote the profitability of the multinational corporations have to rely on states. As global public goods develop through cosmopolitan commitment, they will have to rely, in part at least, on revenues from states. This reliance is less likely to turn them away from the social goals they pursue if they stay based on non-governmental organizations with cosmopolitan commitments.

So our response to the view that public goods, and in particular global public goods, must be statist has two parts. First, global public goods don’t need a world state. Second, to the extent that they rely on nation states, that reliance is tempered by the cosmopolitan commitment of a variety of non-governmental groups.

As regards self-interest, we have seen that people will work for public goods out of a sense of solidarity even where there is no narrowly self-interested reason for doing so. If the state acts only from self-interest, then it will decline to pursue social goals whose benefits to the state may be less than their costs to it. To fix things, we don’t have to resort to the patently outrageous thesis that states, in the present form of capitalist states, are in fact linked by solidarity. Their narrow self-interests lead them too often into hostilities and manipulations. Instead, it is sufficient to observe that states can be moved to show constraint in view of the activity of non-governmental organizations with a cosmopolitan commitment. Even where capitalist states exist, this gives an opening for starting global public goods.

The Hobbesian view of states gives them altogether too much autonomy from non-governmental activity with cosmopolitan intent. Pressures from human rights, environmental, peace, and health groups have led states to open space within which progress can be made toward global public goods. The important point is that such openings have come about because of the solidarity those groups have with the far flung victims of one form or another of oppression. So there is a kind of justice-from-below that makes it impossible for states to pursue solely their narrow self-interests. This allows for states themselves, even in their capitalist form, to play a role in the process of building global public goods.

Resolving problems about global public goods – disagreement

Finally, how can a world, as fractured as ours is, come to agreement on a set of social goals that can then be institutionalized as global public goods? Agreement on social goals is, as we saw in Section 4, an important element in the new concept of public good, one that was missing in the standard concept, which left it open to elites to select the goals that public projects would realize. If we think in terms of the conflicts between Muslim and Hindu, black and white, Palestinians and Israelis, and the General Agreement on Trade in Services and the poor make the project of global public goods, as based on agreement, seem almost hopeless.

To find a way around this problem, it is perhaps necessary to begin by shifting our perspective slightly. We need to recognize that agreement on social goals, which are the aims of public goods, is reached more easily among the deprived than it is between the deprived and those with plenty. Those with plenty don’t have the same interest in, for example, national health insurance as do those with less. Rather than delay satisfaction for the urgent needs of those with less, it is perhaps wise to focus attention on the common problems of the great majority. There is also the other great divide between states and majorities within them. States often agree with one another on issues of wealth and power while being at odds with majorities within them. Again, rather than delay satisfaction for the urgent needs of those with less political voice, one would do well to adopt the perspective of those with less voice. It is possible to cut through the obstacles posed by demanding total agreement by focusing on the common problems of the great majority across the globe.

This is a shift of perspective from an elusive agreement of all to a more feasible agreement of a great majority. We need such a shift not just because total agreement is elusive across the globe but also because many of the same divisions make total agreement elusive within countries. The shift that is needed is then one from a consensus to a majoritarian point of view. The wealthy and the powerful, whether nationally or globally, will often find themselves outside the majority view. But they have the resources to try to prevent the development of and, if that fails, to overturn the rule of majorities of the more vulnerable. No apologies are needed when those with less wealth and power defend their views of society by national or global public goods. What needs apologies is that so far they have rarely been given the chance.

There are many examples in which on the global scene widespread agreement has endured despite efforts of corporations and states to undermine it. The desire for a secure and affordable supply of water is a widespread goal across the globe. That goal calls for international treaties to protect the distribution of water from multinational predators and to arrange for its fair distribution across borders. There is also a widespread desire for adequate healthcare that will not be satisfied until all nations can be part of an international system that has the funds to distribute the resources for improving health and providing healthcare. A World Health Organization committee headed by Jeffrey Sachs has estimated that eight million lives could be saved every year for $100 billion. The spillover in terms of income gained from people staying well would be $186 billion. One could go on, talking about other areas such as education, peace, a sustainability, and job security where there is widespread agreement on a global scale. The great dissenters are the multinationals and the states that curry their favor.

What is lacking is mobilizing global majorities to create the public goods that will reach these goals. Of course, there is a powerful opposition not just to widespread agreement but also to mobilization. It has been diligent in preventing the transformation of any widespread agreement into action. That opposition is now pushing for a GATS that would require any WTO country not to discriminate against a foreign corporation that wants to take over its water distribution, its healthcare, its education, or most any service the country might have.

With majorities favoring the pursuit of social goals needed to give them a secure existence, the attacks on those goals and their implementation can be regarded as anti-democratic. The response of those majorities should not be to abandon democracy, unless of course elites resort to force against them. These majorities should instead take full advantage of democracy by mobilizations that will lead to their winning the balance of power in democratic institutions. In this way, a majority force can implement the new concept of public good even in the absence of universal agreement. Global public goods will then clip the power of neolibealism. For those goods aim at goals on which there is widespread agreement rather than only an agreement among members of an elite. They are built through solidarity rather than by calculating spillovers. Finally, they rely on the cosmopolitan commitments of non-governmental groups to offset the self-interest of states." (

Discussion 2

Internet Governance as a Global Public Good

Veronika Bauer and Matthias C. Kettemann:


"Turning to our first point, we should like to highlight that the concept of commons in the information society is janus-faced; two commons exist, which differ from the traditional definition insofar as they are not a finite resource: the contents (i.e. the global commons of information and know-how available on the web) and the access (i.e. the information and communication technologies (ICTs) ensuring the availability of information regardless of time and location). WSIS documents have so far focused predominantly on aspects of the ‘material’ dimension of information society’s commons and have only referred to specific aspects of its ‘procedural’ dimension. These references include efforts to develop and use ICTs for the preservation of natural and cultural heritage (paragraph 23 (c) of the 2003 Geneva Plan of Action) and use of ICTs to ensure long-term preservation of, and continued access to, historical data and cultural heritage (paragraph 93 of the 2005 Tunis Agenda for the Information Society).

In the Geneva Plan of Action and the Tunis Agenda access to the global commons of informational heritage has been recognized as a goal of the information society; but significant problems remain in relation to internet access due to the ‘digital divide’. The rise of ICTs has served the cause of commons more than any other development in the information society. Since the conception of informational heritage as a global commons implies the necessity of internet access for all, identifying strategies aimed at reducing the digital divide is one the most important tasks for the future. The Digital Solidarity Fund (DSF) is an important first step to bridge the digital divide; yet, the WSIS documents could have put more emphasis on this and similar initiatives." (


"First, internet governance must ensure the protection of all human rights for all as a precondition of ensuring the global commons. The outcome of the WSIS process is semantically reassuring: In the Geneva Declaration of Principles and the Tunis Commitment, states reaffirm the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. In the Declaration of Principles and in the Tunis Commitment they avow their desire to build a “people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented” information society”, based on, inter alia, the commitment that “people everywhere can create, access, utilize and share information and knowledge, to achieve their full potential and to attain the internationally agreed development goals and objectives.” The implementation of these commitments has not yet been assured. Any regulation of internet governance must meet this challenge. Additionally, abuses of ICTs by private actors have to remedied. ICTs do not only ‘enable’ citizens worldwide, but also authors of hate speech or cybercriminals. The rise of the information society does not question the nature and extent of for human rights protection regimes per se, but human rights have to evolve in order to answer the challenges of the information society.

Second, internet governance must react, and react wisely, to the decrease in importance of territorial states. They have ceased to be the only determining actors of information society. Without traditional structures playing a smaller role than before, the dichotomy private/public needs to be rethought. Legitimate governance of the internet is not feasible without a multilayer/multiplayer approach that encompasses all relevant stakeholders. In this regard the first session of the Internet Governance Forum in autumn 2006 plays a vital role for civil society dialogue.

Third, any governance of the internet needs to be international. States are no longer in any position to control the internet, much less to regulate in a way that ensures the safeguarding of the global commons. Is a ‘United Nations Organization of the Internet’ the answer? That remains to be seen. Yet, ‘privatizing’ the internet (or, to be exact: keeping it in the hands of private actors, such as ICANN) would violate the multistakeholder principle that states have committed to in the WSIS outcome documents." (

More Information

  1. Definition by the International Task Force on Global Public Goods at
  2. Commentary and explanation at


  1. Global Public Goods and Self-Interest. By Milton Fisk, Indiana University
  2. Advancing the Concept of Public Goods. The second part of this essay by INGE KAUL AND RONALD U. MENDOZA deals extensively with global public goods.


  1. Inge Kaul et al., editors, Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999); and
  2. Inge Kaul et al., editors, Providing Global Public Goods: Managing Globalization (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003).