If you want a model for how the world can solve its most pressing problems in the 21st century, it is the posse. As governance systems go, the Wild West approach of rounding up a few available hands and driving the bad guy out of town is certainly messy, but, if our favorite westerns are any guide, it could be highly effective. Political theorists who can see the potential dress it up in highfalutin' language as "coalitions of the willing" and governance based on "flexible geometry," but we prefer to call it what it is: a posse. And this week, in New York, we are going to see plenty of evidence of why the posse is our best hope for getting things done.
This is the time of the year when New York's traffic is gridlocked by two massive events focused on global problems -- the General Assembly of the United Nations and the Clinton Global Initiative -- and a plethora of smaller events making the most of the influx of world leaders, thinkers and celebrities. Inside the United Nations, created in the pre-posse era of top down governmental approaches, there will also be plenty of gridlock, we fear, at least on headline-grabbing topics like the politics of the Middle-East. Such progress that will be made will be on issues where the UN is engaged in a posse with business, non-governmental agencies and philanthrocapitalists, such as on tackling communicable diseases -- thanks not least to the Ted Turner-created UN Foundation and its associated UN Office for Partnerships. But the true center of posse action will be the Clinton Global Initiative, where the sheriff (or cowboy-in-chief -- in a good way), Bill Clinton, will preside over updates and new commitments from dozens of posses bringing together people and organizations committed to doing what works across a wide range of global issues, although this year's three main themes will be job creation, girl power and sustainable consumption.
We first started talking about this approach years ago, after reading a rather dense section (starting on page 407) of the influential yet often incomprehensible book, Empire, by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. They saw the role of the posse as largely about bringing down (in a sort of neo-Marxist way) the established oppressive forms of government: "the name that we want to use to refer to the multitude in its political autonomy and its productive activity is the Latin verb posse -- power as a verb, as activity." We prefer to see the posse as a way that government, business, non-profits, philanthropists, celanthropists and individual citizens can work together more effectively to solve problems that cannot be sorted out by government alone (or any of those other actors alone, for that matter).
Posses, as we all know from cowboy movies, have two key characteristics. First, they are set up to achieve a specific goal that is both necessary and achievable, such as catching the black-hatted cattle-rustlers. Second, they are voluntary, collaborative associations -- yes, coalitions of the willing: they may be convened by the town sheriff (doubtless wearing a white hat), but they are based on the active, engaged participation of others irrespective of their job or role.
In her excellent new book on the future of work, The Shift, London Business School professor Lynda Gratton talks about how every individual should form a posse to help them succeed professionally. Her thoughts on posse formation for the individual would apply equally well to any organisation meeting this week in New York: "Here is what I think a great posse is and can do: It's a relatively small group of people [organisations!], who have some of the same expertise that you have - so there is enough overlap for you to really understand each other and add value quickly. Your posse trust you -- they have ridden out with you before -- you have been there for them in the past. So, these are folks you have known for some time and who like and support you. They come to your rescue [or join your campaign to solve a problem] quickly precisely because they can understand what you are up against and can help without distracting."
Probably the clearest example so far of the posse approach to global problem solving is in public health. Take the example of the revived campaign to eradicate malaria, led by Ray Chambers, the private equity pioneer and UN Special Envoy on malaria. The Malaria No More campaign has the two key characteristics of a posse.
First, there's the goal, which is certainly specific -- malaria no more. The fact that a child dies every 45 seconds from this preventable disease is also enough to persuade most people that this is a worthwhile necessary goal. It is achievable, since malaria has been eradicated in other countries. Second, it is a coalition. Chambers, blessed by the UN, is the sheriff, but he is not working alone. Indeed, the biggest contribution is coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has used its own cash to breathe life into malaria research but also, crucially, to leverage others. The Global Fund that Gates seeded is a special purpose vehicle, the posse as an institution, created to pool money from governments, philanthropy and business. Together with the Malaria No More campaign, the Global Fund has mobilized a diverse coalition, from governments to big companies to celebrities, to bring sufficient resources to be bear to solve the problem (The Global Fund is also a unique institution of global governance where the board is made up not just of the usual rich countries but also representatives from developing countries, civil society, philanthropic and the private sector. The World Bank, by contrast, is run by governments alone and controlled by the rich countries, which have the lion's share of the voting rights because it is their cash.)
Will the malaria posse succeed? Let us hope so -- and not just because that will save millions of lives. Its success is crucial if it is to inspire other posses to take on other challenges. Happily, more posses are forming already. The Elders, the Richard Branson inspired and Nelson Madela anointed group of former heads of state and moral leaders, has announced that it wants to end child marriage within a generation. Maybe this is merely a high-minded aspiration (we hope not); if they are serious, they will need to form a serious posse.
A world of posses will appall some people. The posse, they object, is a relic of a lawless, institution-less past. Yet maybe we need to accept that a multi-polar world in which the G7 countries are no longer dominant, and the traditional multilateral agencies such as the UN are clearly limited, is more like the Wild West than, say, Switzerland. But we suspect that the time has come to update Otto von Bismarck's famous comment that "politics is the art of the possible" to "social change is the art of the posse-able."
Matthew Bishop and Michael Green are coauthors of Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World. Bishop is New York Bureau Chief of The Economist. Green is an independent writer and consultant.