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Global commons: Ideas to shape the future and a new international economic order

Guest content
06 April 2023

With a renewal of internationalism again on the agenda, we need to urgently reflect on the concept of the global commons. Do natural resources not belong to all the inhabitants of the Earth? By Francine Mestrum.

History can be seen as a long and slow river, but now and then, here and there, there are rapids. They can be very different in kind but have similar consequences, such as the COVID-19 crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All of a sudden we lived in a different world, a world in which it was not possible to move freely and a world in which old-fashioned wars became reality again.

Even if for most of the Earth's inhabitants this free movement never existed while wars are a daily reality in too many countries, it is hard to deny that the world is rapidly changing. Globalisation is put into question, the post-cold war unipolar world is ending, and geopolitical relationships are shifting.

Economically several rich countries are now reflecting on a new kind of protectionism in order to preserve and protect their industries, called ‘sovereignty’. The strong belief in multilateralism is waning. The war in Ukraine is strengthening discourse on the importance of independence as if any country were able to be really independent and did not need others for its survival. Proposals to reform the UN-system have been on the table since at least the 1980s.

The changing perspective on international relations also comes from climate change and the loss of biodiversity. In this sector more particularly it is crystal clear we all depend on others.

Finally, the inequality gap linked to totalitarian regimes, ongoing conflicts and environmental degradation lead to the unsolvable problem of migration. Migration now is the only directly feasible way for people in the South to escape hunger, poverty and persecution, but political support in the North is melting like snow in the sun. It is the breeding ground for right-wing political forces. Nationality loses its importance in favour of multiple and varied identities. Hegemonic cultures, if they ever existed, will necessarily and hopefully disappear. Universalism, the necessary ally of diversity will prevail, there can be little doubt about that.

It is clear we need to look for better ways to organize our living together, with inter-dependency, without hegemony or dominance.

A new internationalism

The new international relations which are now in the making are based on interests, real or imagined, though not on needs. Sanctions mainly are linked to the interests of dominant powers. Very often, they clearly hurt the needs of people.

If we were to think of people’s needs in terms of technological innovation, environmental and biodiversity protection, energy, food, clean air and drinking water, there would be no embargoes or economic sanctions against countries. If there were a full awareness of our interdependencies, there would be no need for trade barriers and customs duties.

As of today, some States are struggling hard to maintain their dominant position, though it might well be that their role will fundamentally change in the future. In neoliberalism, their tasks were re-defined so as to limit their role in the economy and to focus on the protection of ‘free’ markets, promotion of competitiveness, reducing poverty (but not promoting welfare states), and protecting the rights of consumers (but not of labourers). Civil society organisations were promoted in order to take up formerly public sector tasks.

This re-organisation of States, markets and citizens led to many initiatives to reform international organisations. It also led to more research on global governance, world federalism, omnilateralism, pluri-nationalism or non-alignment. A strong need is felt to have more democratic participation at the international level and to reduce the exclusive State-led organisation of global relations.

There clearly is a desire to better take into account our really existing inter-dependencies, to strengthen democracies and to promote equality and human rights.


This is the context in which it could be meaningful to start a new reflection on global commons. It would be naïve to think States will disappear and make room for regional or global organisations. This will not happen and is not necessary. Nevertheless, it could be worthwhile to reflect on and promote a better distribution of roles and responsibilities.

Commons have been discussed for several decades now, in many different forms. What links the proposals together is a new focus on people and citizens, commons go ‘beyond States and markets’ as is usually said though this does not necessarily mean ‘without States and markets’. In this configuration, citizens and their organisations will be able to have a more direct role and responsibility, enhancing democracy and transparency. It also allows for maintaining the crucially political character of all commons whose existence depends on the collective decision of those who want to create them.

Commons neither are ‘common’ nor ‘public goods’, an economic concept requiring collective action traditionally thought of needing the State to provide them. Commons refer to a totally different concept. Its most simple meaning is that which belongs to all of us: our planet, our oceans, our forests, our land and our seeds. These are natural commons. We also have cultural commons: our knowledge, our cultural heritage, our internet… And we have social commons: our human rights, our public services, our health care. When citizens decide to take care of these and take responsibility for them, common or public goods become commons. They are always the result of a collective political decision.

Neither can a common be private property or if it is, this property will not give absolute rights to its owner. Commons mean that it is possible to overcome the divide between private and public, between market and State. Commons cannot be commodities, though they can have a price.

These simple principles explain why commons can become a serious strategic element in the fight against neoliberalism, privatisations, land grabbing, the monopolisation of trade in seeds, extractivism, etc. The concept of commons perfectly fits within a new economic approach that puts the focus on needs and on care. Our economy should produce what we need, taking care of nature and of people, promoting the sustainability of all forms of life and of society.

Global commons

The inspiration for the idea can be found in Thomas Paine and his ‘Agrarian Justice’ of 1795:

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural, cultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal… it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.

There are examples of countries where these ideas have been implemented.

The government of Alaska decided to create a ‘Permanent Fund’ with 25 % of the oil revenues. Since 1982, a dividend is paid to those citizens who apply, who are residents of Alaska and who have no criminal convictions. The amount paid is not stable, since it varies with income. The idea was also behind Iran's energy and food subsidy reform system in 2011. Subsidies were replaced by a cash transfer to almost the whole population, but when the oil revenues started to dwindle, the universality of the system was abandoned. Mongolia is another example where, due to the mining boom in the early 2000s, a Human Development Fund was created with the objective of collecting and evenly redistributing the resources. But again, when prices of commodities plummeted, the system disappeared.

Another example comes from Guy Standing and his ‘The Plunder of the Commons’. He uses the idea of our common heritage to give all citizens a basic amount of money, coming from a Fund created by the incomes from the exploitation of, amongst others, our natural resources.

In this reasoning, the exploitation of natural resources would be for the benefit of the whole of society. This is fundamentally a matter of social justice and people can rightly claim ‘our commons back’.

Knowing this is practically very feasible in a national context, it cannot be too difficult to make it apply to a global context. Also, it should not only be possible to give citizens a basic dividend, it could be even more important to give a right to others to have access to these resources. There is no reason to keep thinking that national States are the exclusive owners of the resources hidden in their soil with an absolute right to decide who has access to them. With the many privatisations of the past decades, much of the ownership has already been shifted from national property to multinational corporations, allowing private wealth to grow and public wealth to decline. What we need today is not only to de-privatize but also to consider as global commons all the Earth’s wealth, for countries and their populations.

Would it not be realistic to consider the natural resources we all need and which our common planet can provide as our natural commons? It would give the old idea of ‘interdependence’ concrete political content reducing the really existing dependency of countries today. In fact, it would be a highly political decision, admitting no goods are public or private because of their intrinsic values, but only as a consequence of a political and conscious global decision. It would not fundamentally change the ownership rules, but only interpret them in such a way that they better fit with the current views on our common planet, separating our common heritage from its actual exploitation. Rules can be made to equitably share the resources.

The idea is less revolutionary than it may seem at first sight. We already have a ‘Law of the Sea’, a UN legal framework for all marine and maritime activities. It contains special provisions for the protection of the marine environment, obligating all States to collaborate. Also beyond national jurisdictions goes the Treaty on the Exploration and the Use of Outer Space. This is to be carried out for the benefit and interest of all countries. Outer space, according to the Treaty, cannot be subject to national appropriation and is free for exploitation and use by all States.

Knowing that most inter-State conflicts on our planet concern the appropriation of natural resources, a global rule for the access to and sharing of some of the benefits from their exploitation could be a powerful tool for promoting peace.

Is it acceptable in times of globalisation to continue to consider States as the sole owners of the resources hidden in their soils? Should we not urgently reflect on the concept of global public goods, or even better, of global commons? Do natural resources not belong to all the inhabitants of the Earth?

For a new international economic order

This point seems to be very relevant in the new ongoing discussion around the ‘New international economic order’. This Declaration of the UN General Assembly of 1974 was revolutionary and contains some elements that clearly deserve to be put on the agenda again.

The Declaration focuses on the ‘full permanent sovereignty of every State’ over its natural resources and all economic activities and gives States the possibility of nationalisation. Its Programme of Action specifically mentions the problem of ‘raw materials’ and their use in the interest of national development.

While the ‘full permanent sovereignty of States’ might, at first sight, be contrary to a global commons approach, the other elements of the different paragraphs do point to collective self-reliance, mutual international cooperation, joint arrangements and the benefit for all. Furthermore, it is clear that natural resources should indeed benefit national interests – while ‘common interests’ might be added – and export incomes can be improved.

As for the ‘full permanent sovereignty,’ there is plenty of research to indicate this cannot be understood anymore in the same way as fifty years ago. In fact, it always was fiction because of all our interdependencies and the need for sharing governing power. Today the concept is rightly challenged, beyond and within States. Many international agreements, at many political levels, show the need and the possibility of sharing power and governance, away from any hegemonic projects.

As for global economic governance, many examples could be mentioned since the beginning of the 20th century. It is true that most of the outside interventions were based on power, not on the rule of law. The fact is, however, that there is an increasing international control on financial stability and on global exchanges. For many natural resources, international agreements have been made though most of them failed to achieve stability and fairness. Lessons can be learned from these experiences to prepare for a better future.

A first conclusion, therefore, is that the Declaration on the NIEO is perfectly compatible with an adjusted perspective on an NIEO with global commons.


Global commons will not be realized rapidly. All international treaties and rules take years to shape and agree on. The renewal of internationalism is now again on the agenda. It seems clear we will have to look beyond all old claims and perspectives, for local, national and global economies. Not only because new problems were added to the old ones, but also because claims and perspectives of the past were not able to solve the major problems populations are faced with. A progressive transformation today must necessarily be about a revival of the commons, with a new alliance between global governance, national States, markets and citizens.

Francine Mestrum has a PhD in Social Sciences from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. She worked at the European institutions and several Belgian universities.

Original source: meer.com

Image credit: Ales Krivec, Unsplash