Planet of great opportunities

'The world needs common values and common institutions. Powerful institutions lacking shared values will breed disullusion and conflict. High moral values lacking strong institutional protection will breed hypocrist and exclusion'. 

This article is based on the Ryszard Kapuscinski Lecture given by Jan Pronk at the London School of Economics on February 16th, 2011. Sixty years after the birth of the new order in the mid 1940's, Mr. Pronk questions where the world is today and points out the need to reform and strengthen international institutions in order to uphold global values. The integral text and a selection of some of the most significant parts of the lecture are published here.

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Challenges ahead

Despite unprecedented world economic growth since 1990, world poverty has hardly decreased. At the beginning of this century world leaders endorsed the so-called Millennium Development Goals, with the aim to cut world poverty by half, in no more than fifteen years. These goals will not be met. Still about two billion people live below or just above a decent level of subsistence. Globalization has resulted in a sharp increase in social and economic inequality within all countries. This has created a different North-South divide, between people with adequate access to markets and technology, and people that are not only exploited or forgotten, but left out on purpose, excluded from the market, without sufficient purchasing power or resources to invest in order to increase their productivity. They lack access to modernity or to the means necessary in order to live a life in decency, beyond survival. One third of the world's population has been deprived from adequate access to one or more of the essentials: fertile land, clean and safe water, food and nutrition, non-depletable sources of energy, primary health care in order to check maternal death after child birth and prevent children dying of diseases that easily can be cured, essential medication to enhance life expectancy, basic education in order to secure oneself a place in a rapidly changing society, and a healthy habitat. Within all countries societies have become structurally dualistic. This has resulted in a dualistic world economy. The North-South divide between nations, which has prevailed until the turn of the century, has changed. North-South presently is a worldwide divide between classes, within all countries, in India and Africa as well as in Europe and the United States. Globally about two third of the world's population belongs to the upper and middle classes, or can at least reasonably expect further emancipation. One third is living in circumstances which can only be characterized as stagnation or decline. This is an alarming scenario. It is further complicated by its consequences. Scarcities and inequalities will result in more conflicts and escalating violence. These contests within and between nations can be expected to result in new divides at the world level, following the North-South divide and the East-West divide in the previous century. New confrontations between major world powers, both traditional powers and newly emerging powers, are likely. A scramble for scarce resources is seems unavoidable. Parallel to this contest we are witnessing a new confrontation between the West and the rest, in particular the Arab world and the world of Islam. This confrontation is partly cultural and religious, but no lesser threat to peace and security than the scramble for resources. Cultural and religious conflicts are more difficult to contain than economic conflicts. On top of this all we are in the midst of a world financial and debt crisis of alarming proportions. This too is due to the character of globalization, which has resulted in the rise of uncontrolled supranational financial powers, propagating values squarely to the principles which had been agreed half a century ago. Those principles became liable to erosion when public responsibilities were substituted by private, capitalist greed. Not only international banks and financial speculators are to be blamed. International oil and mineral companies, chemical and pharmaceutical enterprises, and large plantations, tobacco companies, seed producers and food chains are also culpable. Most of these firms are heedlessly putting aside the people-planet-profit commitment of Agenda 21. The spirit has left the bottle and nobody seems to know how the resulting forces can be pushed back.

A diminishing capacity to address the challenges

This is alarming. However, what should worry us most are not the dangers themselves, but the fact that we have dismantled our capacity to deal with them. International institutions with a mandate to deal with finance, capital, money, investment, food and agriculture, trade, environment, development, human rights, relief and refugees, have been played off against each other. Global common public institutions give way to trans-national private market powers. Global common security and indiscriminate protection of human rights have become subordinate to arbitrary perceptions of national security. National security is regarded as a political precondition for attaining other objectives, including human rights. Security increasingly seems to be understood as an absolute and superior value, in no way dependent on other values, such as justice or equality. National security, rather than being understood as an integral element of world security for all, has become a concept that excludes The Other. The pre-emptive strike is back again in the international system. Once again, war has been given a chance. Security, instead of being perceived as a common public good, has become a private commodity that can be bought and sold on the market. The priority of national security breeds a new culture, a culture of fear: other human beings are taken for possible enemies and looked upon as second rate people. Beautiful new concepts have been introduced, such as human security, human development, precaution, sustainability, the responsibility to protect, and other ideas, opening a delightful perspective to the Dr. Watsons of our world. However, in practice they do not mean much. The political and market mechanisms of today have resulted in less precaution, less security, less sustainability and less protection.

Grasping the opportunities

In order to reverse this trend we need a radical turn on two fronts: values and institutions. This is the challenge today, drastic reassessment of values and fundamental innovation of institutions. We do not have to start from scratch. Innovation and renewal, preventing decay, include restoration and reform. Reform of institutions, strengthening of values, and shoring the world's social fabric. Research and science can help citizens to get better insight into realities and scenarios and to choose a different position than that of mere on-lookers or even ostriches, burying the head in the sand. Mere bystanders look, see, but do not observe. As citizens we should be challenged to detect and deduce, to understand connections and the historical context. Citizen's views, however, are easily manipulated by commercial powers that seduce and persuade them to consume, ever more, whatever the consequences. Citizens are also easily manipulated by political groups with an interest in power for its own sake, and which try to keep this power by means of divisionary policies and discrimination.  Citizens also have been made to believe that society is not makeable and that the future is by definition unknown territory. When people believe so, they will accept any new technological option as progress, and agree that everything that can be made should be made, whatever the risks. Not every change means progress. Innovation is not an aim in itself. It should serve a purpose, not for market partners, but for society. Reform of institutions, including the UN and the way decisions are made within this system, should guarantee a just and equal consideration of all interests, and in particular the interests of two categories of people. First, the poorest of the poor. In the production systems of the last two decades, which are primarily based on capital and technology, rather than people and nature, the poor have been exploited and excluded no less than in earlier phases of world capitalism. Second: the yet unborn, the future generations, our grand children and grand-grand children. People in the underbelly of the world's economy and people that once will come out of the shadows of the future have one thing in common: they do not (yet) have a voice. But they have a claim. Sixty years ago a new order was established to make such a claim manifest, to declare legitimacy of claims and to find ways and means honouring rightful claims. That order is the tent that had been set up to provide protection to these two groups in particular. Today both groups seem to have been turned out of the tent. And those who remained inside do not attach much value anymore to the protection provided by the tent. Instead, they take it down. Kapuscinsky described our world as a Planet of Great Opportunities. It is our responsibility to grasp these opportunities, in the interest not only of ourselves, but also of The Other. Using this terminology and quoting Joseph Conrad, Kapuscinsky made very clear that he meant humankind as a whole, 'the dead with the living and the living with the yet unborn'.

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Jan Pronk is former President of SID as well as Professor of Theory and Practice of International Development at ISS, the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands. From 2004 to 2006 he was Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Sudan, where he was leading the UN peace-keeping operation (UNMIS). He also served as Minister for Development Cooperation and Minister for the Environment of the Dutch government. Having studied economics at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, he has worked as a politician since the 1970s, first as a Member of Parliament for the Social Democratic Party and then as Minister.  


Credits Video: London School of Economics/YouTube

Cover photo: colon+right.bracket/flickr