Can Globalization Really Solve Our Problems?
“The global neighbourhood we have today is, like most neighbourhoods, far from ideal; it has many imperfections. Its residents are not all fairly treated; they do not have the same opportunities. Millions are so deprived that they do not even think they belong to a neighbourhood.”—“OUR GLOBAL NEIGHBOURHOOD.”
FATIMA, a resident of a large African city, considers herself fortunate. At least she has a refrigerator. But her family’s home is just a metal shack erected alongside three marble tombs. Like half a million other residents, she lives in a huge cemetery. And even the cemetery is getting crowded. “Too many people moving in,” she complains, “especially here in the tombs.”
About ten miles [15 km] from Fatima’s home lies an exclusive new housing complex, complete with elegant restaurants and a 27-hole golf course. The cost of one round of golf is more than the per capita monthly wage in this African country. Poverty has always plagued the city, but golf courses—a symbol of the elite—are both a novelty and an irritant. In our global neighborhood, luxury and penury coexist uneasily.
The Wadi Hadhramaut, which snakes through the arid land of Yemen in the Middle East, is an old caravan route dotted with ancient cities. At first glance it seems that time has stood still in this remote valley. But outward appearances can be deceptive. In the nearby city of Saywūn, the museum has enlisted the help of a university graduate to prepare a Web site listing all its treasures. Although the graduate is a local girl, she studied in Ohio, U.S.A. Nowadays, both people and ideas can move around the globe as never before.
A couple of thousand miles to the west, in the Sahara, a convoy of three trucks crawls south on an isolated road. Mashala, one of the drivers, explains that he is transporting televisions, video recorders, and satellite dishes. He himself keeps in touch with world events by watching American news broadcasts. In my town “we all have satellite dishes,” he explains. Few places on earth escape the reach of the global media.
The constant worldwide flow of people, ideas, news, money, and technology has created a new global neighborhood that can bring benefits. Globalization helps propagate local culture in Yemen and enables Mashala to earn up to $3,000 for a three-week trip. But the money doesn’t filter down to everyone. Fatima and her neighbors watch a few people enjoy the benefits of globalization, while they stay stuck in poverty.
Although our global neighborhood is far from ideal, the process of global integration is probably irreversible. Will people turn off their TVs, throw away their mobile phones, destroy their computers, and stop traveling to other lands? Will nations try to isolate themselves completely from the rest of the world, politically and economically? It seems most unlikely. Nobody wants to discard the benefits of globalization. But what about the accompanying problems? They are causing increasing concern, and they touch the lives of everyone. Let us consider briefly a few of globalization’s more serious side effects.
The Widening Gap
The distribution of global wealth has never been fair, but economic globalization has widened the chasm between rich and poor. True, it appears that some developing countries have benefited from their integration into the global economy. Experts claim that during the past ten years, the number of people below the poverty line in India has gone down from 39 percent to 26 percent and that Asia as a whole has seen a similar improvement. One study shows that by 1998, only 15 percent of the East Asian population lived on $1 a day, compared with 27 percent ten years earlier. The global picture, however, is not so rosy.
In sub-Saharan Africa and some other less-developed regions, income has actually decreased in the past 30 years. “The international community . . . allows nearly 3 billion people—almost half of all humanity—to subsist on $2 or less a day in a world of unprecedented wealth,” points out Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general. One of the major causes of this huge social divide is financial self-interest. “The world over, private financial markets fail when it comes to the very poor,” explains Larry Summers, former U.S. treasury secretary. “Mainstream banks do not seek out poor communities—because that’s not where the money is.”
The vast income divide between rich and poor segregates people and even countries from one another. Not long ago the fortune of the richest man in the United States surpassed the combined net worth of more than 100 million of his fellow Americans. Globalization has also favored the growth of rich multinational companies that have practically taken over the world market for certain products. In 1998, for example, just ten companies controlled 86 percent of the $262-billion telecommunications business. The economic clout of these multinationals often exceeds that of governments and, as Amnesty International points out, “human rights and labour rights are not a priority on their agenda.”
Human rights organizations are understandably worried about the concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of a privileged few. Would you like to live in a neighborhood where the richest 20 percent earn 74 times more than the poorest? And thanks to television, the impoverished 20 percent of mankind know perfectly well how their rich counterparts live, although they see little chance of improving their own lot. Such gross unfairness in the global neighborhood clearly sows many seeds of unrest and frustration.
The Globalization of Culture
Another area of concern involves clashes of culture and the spread of materialistic values. The interchange of ideas is an important feature of globalization, and nothing symbolizes this phenomenon more than the Internet. Unfortunately, the Internet is not merely used to spread beneficial information, culture, and commerce. Some Web sites promote pornography, racism, or gambling. A few even give specific instructions on how to make homemade bombs. As Thomas L. Friedman points out, “on the Internet, trouble is just a few mouse clicks away. You can wander into a virtual neo-Nazi beer hall or pornographer’s library, . . . and no one is there to stop or direct you.”
Television and films also have an enormous influence on how people think. The messages on the world’s screens often come out of Hollywood, the world’s principal factory of make-believe. The values that this vast entertainment industry reflects often promote materialism, violence, or immorality. They may be totally alien to the local culture of many countries of the world. Nevertheless, governments, educators, and parents invariably find it impossible to hold back the tide.
“We love U.S. culture,” explained a resident of Havana, Cuba, to a North American visitor. “[We] know all your Hollywood stars.” Western culture also promotes fast food and soft drinks. A Malaysian businessman observed: “Anything Western, especially American, people here love. . . . They want to eat it and be it.” The rector of a Havana College sadly acknowledged: “Cuba is no longer an island. There are no islands anymore. There is only one world.”
Invasive Western culture affects people’s hopes and desires. “‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has shifted from striving to match the consumption of a next-door neighbour to pursuing the life styles of the rich and famous depicted in movies and television shows,” noted the Human Development Report 1998. Obviously, the vast majority of mankind will never attain such a life-style.
Is Globalization a Solution?
Like many of mankind’s projects, globalization has proved both useful and harmful. It has brought economic advantages to some, and it has ushered in an era of global communications. Nevertheless, it favors the rich and the powerful over the poor and the needy. And both criminals and disease viruses have exploited the advantages of globalization more efficiently than governments.—See boxes on pages 8 and 9.
To a large extent, globalization has magnified the problems that already existed in our imperfect world. Rather than offering a solution to the world’s difficulties, it has become part of the problem. Social divisions have become greater, and frustration has mounted. Governments around the world struggle to harness the benefits of globalization while protecting their citizens against its excesses. Will they be successful? Could globalization with a human face be the answer? The following article will analyze these questions.
[Boxes/Pictures on page 8, 9]
THE GLOBALIZATION OF CRIME AND TERRORISM
Unfortunately, tools of trade and commerce can easily be converted into tools of crime. “As the multinational corporations have led the drive to globalize the world’s economy, so the ‘crime multinationals’—the organized crime syndicates—have been quick to exploit it,” explains the Human Development Report 1999. How has organized crime benefited from globalization?
Drug cartels have found a host of new opportunities to launder their billion-dollar profits. The elimination of many customs controls and the increasing movement of people also make it much easier for the cartels to transport illegal drugs from one country or continent to another. Interestingly, during the 1990’s cocaine production doubled and opium production tripled. International Mafia groups have also developed a lucrative business in prostitution. Every year, they ship some 500,000 women and girls to Western Europe for this purpose—the majority against their will.
Crime syndicates, like multinational corporations, have consolidated their power in recent years. Many have a global operation, and between them they gross an estimated $1.5 trillion a year—more than the gross national product of France.*
The Internet too has proved to be an ideal tool for dishonest computer specialists. In 1995 one hacker stole information said to be worth $1 million as well as 20,000 private credit card numbers. “Stealing through the use of new technology is less risky and more profitable,” explained José Antonio Soler, a Spanish banker.
Terrorists also use the tools of globalization. Thanks to global news coverage, the kidnapping of a few Western tourists in a remote corner of the planet can serve to give instant publicity to practically any political grievance.
Diseases as well as people can travel around the globe, and some of them are deadly. “The dramatic increases in worldwide movement of people, goods, and ideas is the driving force behind the globalization of disease,” explains Professor Jonathan M. Mann, an expert on epidemics. “The world has rapidly become much more vulnerable to the eruption and, most critically, to the widespread and even global spread of both new and old infectious diseases.”
Nothing symbolizes this new global vulnerability more dramatically than the AIDS pandemic, which is now killing about three million people every year. In some countries of Africa, health workers fear that the disease will eventually kill two thirds of all the young men and women. “Despite millennia of epidemics, war and famine, never before in history have death rates of this magnitude been seen among young adults,” reports the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV⁄AIDS.
Microbes and viruses are not the only unwanted global “travelers.” Animals, plants, and insects have escaped their normal habitat and invaded other continents. A species of poisonous snake from Australia is currently colonizing Pacific Islands, apparently by stowing away on aircraft. It has already exterminated practically all the forest birds of Guam. The water hyacinth from South America has spread to 50 tropical countries, where it blocks canals and destroys fish ponds. “Invading ‘aliens’ are costing the global economy possibly hundreds of billions of dollars every year as well as spreading diseases and causing massive ecological destruction,” reports the International Herald Tribune.
“Gross national product” refers to the total market value of goods and services that a country produces in a year.
In a shipment of toy bears
$4,000,000 worth of cocaine found in a recreational vehicle seized at a border crossing
Soldiers search for anthrax on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.
A car bomb explodes in Israel
GLOBAL SPREAD OF AIDS
The AIDS epidemic is so overwhelming in South Africa that some public hospitals are turning people away
Brown tree snakes have almost exterminated the forest birds in Guam
This plant blocks canals and riverbanks in some 50 countries
Money and cocaine smuggling: James R. Tourtellotte and Todd Reeves/U.S. Customs Service; bioterrorism: AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert; burning bus: AP Photo/HO/Israeli Defense Forces; child: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe; snake: Photo by T. H. Fritts, USGS; water hyacinth: Staff CDFA, California Dept. of Food & Agriculture, Integrated Pest Control Branch
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Economic globalization has widened the gap between rich and poor
UN PHOTO 148048/J. P. Laffont-SYGMA
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The Internet is being used to promote terrorism