"Global Doubts as Global Solutions"

08 November 2004 |


by Amartya Sen

Melbourne Town Hall
Tuesday, May 15, 2001, 6pm


1. Misery and Resignation

We live in a world of unprecedented prosperity - incomparably richer than ever before. The massive command over resources, knowledge and technology that we now take for granted would be hard for our ancestors to imagine. But ours is also a world of extraordinary deprivation and of staggering inequality. An astonishing number of children are ill nourished and illiterate as well as ill cared and needlessly ill. Millions perish every week from diseases that can be completely eliminated, or at least prevented from killing people with abandon. The world in which we live is both remarkably comfortable and thoroughly miserable.

Faced with this dual recognition, we can go in one of several different directions. One line of thinking takes the form of arguing that the combination of processes that has led to the prosperity of some will lead to similar prosperity for all. The advocacy of this perspective comes from obdurate optimists, who see the doubters as soft in the head, whether or not they are kind in heart. In contrast, the stubborn pessimists acknowledge - indeed emphasize - the continuing misery in the world, but are pessimistic about our ability to change the world significantly. That can - and often does - lead to a quiet acceptance of a great many ills. As Sir Thomas Browne put it more than three and a half centuries ago (in 1643), "the world... is not an inn, but a hospital."

There is, thus, a partial but effective congruence between the stubborn optimist and the incorrigible pessimist. The optimist finds resistance unnecessary whereas the pessimist finds it to be useless. As James Branch Cabell put it (reacting to a very different manifestation of this conundrum), "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." The opposing viewpoints unite in resignation. Global passiveness is, thus, fed not just by apathy, but also by a conservative unity of radical opposites. Persuaded - or at least comforted - by our alleged inability to do any good (either because it is not needed or because we cannot make any difference anyway), we can lead our own lives, minding our own business, and not see anything ethically problematic in quietly accepting the inequities that characterize our world. One effect is to divorce our lives from any kind of global ethics.

The global doubts, of which we see many different expressions in the contemporary world, can be viewed, I would argue, as a rejection of this comforting conservatism. The protest movements against the global economy are often ungainly, ill tempered, simplistic, frenzied and frantic, and yet they do serve the function of questioning and disputing the complacency about the world in which we live. It is, of course, possible that in responding to the questions that the protesters ask, we may arrive at very different answers from the ones that they display in their resonant slogans. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, the global doubts can help to broaden our attention and extend the reach of policy debates, by confronting the status quo and by contesting global resignation and acquiesce. The global doubts are, in this sense, a way to global solutions.

2. Two Roles of Doubts

In his essay on The Advancement of Learning, published in 1605, nearly 400 years ago, Francis Bacon distinguished between two different contributions that doubts can make. "The registering and proposing of doubts has a double use," Bacon said. One use is straightforward: it guards us "against errors". The second use, Bacon argued, involved the role of doubts in initiating and furthering a process of inquiry, which has the effect of enriching our investigations. Issues that "would have been passed by lightly without intervention." Bacon noted, end up being "attentively and carefully observed" precisely because of the intervention of doubts.

It is important to note that here Francis Bacon is arguing against the view that doubts can be productive only if they are based on an accurate understanding of the phenomenon in consideration. By forcing attention on particular questions, doubting can bring neglected issues into scrutiny and examination, and can thus be productive even if the doubters happen to be wrong, in one way or another, in the remedies they suggest. This distinction is particularly important because many opponents of these protest movements have pointed to the gaps in the reasons that underlie the slogans and assertions that the protesters present. Those assertions and claims must receive attention, but the first and the most immediate contribution made by the doubts and the protests is to bring some important but often neglected questions into focus. It is important to recognise that the question-mongering role of doubts can itself be creative and productive.

This is not to deny that the various components and correlates of globalisation (including the case for global trade and worldwide use of modern technology and finance) would have to be examined much more comprehensively - and perhaps also more coolly - than the protesters seem to assume. But the broadening of the questions that are to be faced, rather than ducked, is itself a major contribution to policy analysis.

3. The Nature of Globalisation

The protest movements can, thus, be seen as expressing creative doubts. But doubts about what? There is, I would argue, a serious interpretational issue here. The protesters often describe themselves as "anti-globalisation"? Are they really? And is globalisation, as many describe it, a new folly?

The so-called anti-globalisation protesters can hardly be, in general, anti-globalisation, since these protests are in fact among the most globalised events in the contemporary world. The protests in Seattle, Melbourne, Prague, Quebec and elsewhere are not isolated or provincial phenomena. The protesters are not just local kids, but men and women from across the world pouring into the location of the respective events to have their global voice heard. Globalised interrelations can hardly be what the protests want to stop, since they must, then, begin by stopping themselves.

I should presently come back to the question as to how we may sensibly view what the protests are about, but before that, let me turn to the second question: Is globalisation a new folly? I would argue that globalisation is neither especially new, nor in general, a folly. A historical understanding of the nature of globalisation can be quite useful here. Over thousands of years, globalisation has contributed to the progress of the world, through travel, trade, migration, spread of cultural influences, and dissemination of knowledge and understanding (including of science and technology). To have stopped globalisation would have done irreparable harm to the progress of humanity.

Furthermore, even though globalisation is often seen these days as a correlate of Western dominance, consideration of history can also help us to understand that globalisation can run in the opposite direction as well. To illustrate, let us look back at the beginning of the last millennium rather than at its end. Around 1000 AD, global spread of science, technology and mathematics was changing the nature of the old world, but the dissemination then was, to a great extent, in the opposite direction to what we see today. For example, the high technology in the world of 1000 AD included paper and printing, the crossbow and gunpowder, the clock and the iron chain suspension bridge, the kite and the magnetic compass, the wheelbarrow and the rotary fan. Each one of these examples of high technology of the world a millennium ago was well-established and extensively used in China and was practically unknown elsewhere. Globalisation spread them across the world, including Europe.

A similar movement occurred in the Eastern influence on Western mathematics. The decimal system emerged and became well developed in India between the second and the sixth century, and was used extensively also by Arab mathematicians soon thereafter. These mathematical innovations reached Europe mainly in the last quartet of the tenth century, and began having its major impact on the early years of the last millennium, playing a major part in the scientific revolution that helped to transform Europe.

Indeed, Europe would have been a lot poorer had it resisted the globalisation of mathematics, science and technology at that time. And the same applies - though in the reverse direction - today. To reject globalisation of science and technology on the ground that this is Western influence would not only amount to overlooking global contributions - drawn from many different parts of the world - that lie solidly behind so-called Western science and technology, but would also be quite a daft practical decision, given the extent to which the whole world stands to benefit from the process. To identify this phenomenon with the Western imperialism of ideas and beliefs would be a serious and costly error, in the same way that any European resistance to Eastern influence would have been at the beginning of the last millennium. We must not, of course, overlook the fact that there are issues related to globalisation that do connect with the imperialism (the history of conquests, colonialism and alien rule remains relevant to day in many different ways), but it would be a great mistake to see globalisation primarily as a feature of imperialism. It is much bigger - much greater - than that.

The polar opposite of globalisation would be persistent separatism and relentless autarky. It is interesting here to recollect an image of seclusion that was invoked with much anxiety in many old Sanskrit texts in India, beginning from about two and a half thousand years ago. This is the story of a well-frog - the kupamanduka - which lives its whole life within a well and is suspicious of everything outside it. I know of four Sanskrit texts, viz Ganapath, Hitopadesh, Prasannaraghava, and Bhattikavya, that warn us not to be well-frogs. The well-frog has world view, but it is a world view that is entirely confined to that well. The scientific, cultural and economic history of the world would have been very limited had we lived like well-frogs. This remains an important issue, since there are plenty of well-frogs around today - and also, of course, may solicitors and advocates of well-frogs.

The importance of global contact and interaction applies to economic relations among others. Indeed there is much evidence that the global economy has brought prosperity to many different areas on the globe. Pervasive poverty and "nasty, brutish and short" lives dominated the world a few centuries ago, with only a few pockets of rare affluence. In overcoming that penury, both modern technology and economic interrelations have been influential. And they continued to remain important today. The economic predicament of the poor across the world cannot be reversed by withholding from them the great advantages of contemporary technology, the well-established efficiency of international trade and exchange, and the social as well as economic merits of living in open rather than closed societies. Rather, the main issue is how to make good use of the remarkable benefits of economic intercourse and technological progress in a way that pays adequate attention to the interests of the deprived and the underdog. That is, I would argue, the principal question that emerges from the anti-globalisation movements. It is, constitutively, not a question about globalisation at all, and the linkage with globalisation is only instrumental and contingent.

4. Inequality and Institutions

What then is the main point of contention? The principal challenge, I would submit, relates one way or another to inequality - international as well as intranational. The inequalities that irk concern disparities in affluence, and also gross asymmetries in political, social and economic power.

The issue of inequality relates to globalisation in two distinct ways. There is, first, the crucial question of the sharing of the merging gains from globalisation, between rich and poor countries, and between different groups within a country. It is not adequate to understand that the poor of the world need globalisation as much as the rich do, it is also important to make sure that they actually get what they need. This may require extensive institutional reform, and that task has to be faced at the same time as globalisation is defended. Second, aside from the distribution of new benefits to come, the demands of justice cannot ignore the overwhelming presence of antecedent inequality that characterizes the contemporary world - the post-colonial present that has emerged from history.

This issue of inequality must, therefore, be addressed at different levels even as we give wholesome acknowledgement to the importance of international economic relations and its mutually beneficial potentialities. Perhaps the most important thing on which to focus is the far-reaching role of non-market institutions in determining the nature and extent of inequalities. Indeed, political, social, legal and other institutions can be critically significant in making good use even of the market mechanism itself - in extending its reach and in facilitating its equitable use. Their overwhelming importance are relevant both for disparities between nations and for inequalities within nations.

Let me begin with the former. Distributional questions are far more complex and far-reaching than the recognition that they typically get in the usual advocacy of globalisation and the championing of high rates of economic growth. Consider the on-going debate on the role of economic growth in removing poverty, which is often fought over very a narrow ground. It is obvious enough that economic growth can be extremely helpful in removing poverty. This is both because the poor can directly share in the increased wealth and income generated by economic growth, and also because the overall increase in national prosperity can help in the financing of public services (including health care and education), which in turn can be particularly useful for the poor and the deprived. It is important, in this context, to see the extensive complementarity between generating resources through economic growth and using those resources to expand and enhance public services. In my joint book with Jean Dr├Ęze, called Hunger and Public Action (published in 1989), this mutually reinforcing process was called "growth-mediated" development.

And yet the removal of poverty and deprivation cannot be seen to be an automatic result of economic growth. The basic problem concerns not merely the obvious point that it must make a difference how the new incomes generated are distributed among the different classes. But more fundamentally, we have to recognise that deprivation with which we have reasons to be concerned is not just the absolute lowness of income, but different but interrelated "unfreedoms", including the prevalence of preventable illness, needless hunger, premature mortality, unceasing illiteracy, social exclusion, economic insecurity, and the denial of political liberty. The income going to the poor is only one determining influence among many others in dealing with deprivation.

A second issue concerns the process through which income is earned as economic growth occurs. The ability of the poor to participate in economic growth depends on a variety of enabling social conditions. It is hard to participate in the expansionary process of the market mechanism (especially in a world of globalised trade) if one is illiterate and unschooled, or if one is bothered by undernourishment and ill health, or if social barriers (such as discrimination related to race or gender) excludes substantial parts of humanity from fair economic participation. Similarly, if one has no capital (not even a tiny plot of land in the absence of land reform), and no access to micro-credit (without the security of collateral ownership), it is not easy for a person to show much economic enterprise in the market economy.

The benefits of the market economy can indeed be momentous, as the champions of the market system argue (on the whole rightly). But then the non-market arrangements for the sharing of education, epidemiology, land reform, micro-credit facilities, appropriate legal protections, women's rights and other means of empowerment must be seen to be important even as ways of spreading access to the market economy (issues in which may market advocates take astonishingly little interest). Indeed, many advocates of the market economy don't seem to take the market sufficiently seriously, because if they did, they would pay more attention to spreading the virtues of market-based opportunities to all. In the absence of advancing these enabling conditions for widespread participation in the market economy, the advocacy of the market system end up being mere conservatism, rather than supporting the promotion of market opportunities as widely as possible. The institutional requirements of an equitable use of market efficiency go well beyond the confined limited of simply "freeing the markets".

A third issue concerns the recognition that the fruits of economic growth may not automatically expand the important social services; there is an inescapable political process involved here. Decisions have to emerge at the social and political level about the uses to which the newly generated resources can be put. The route of "growth-mediated" advancement may be full of promise and favourable prospects for living conditions and freedoms of human beings, but political and social steps have to be taken to realise that promise and to secure those prospects. For example, South Korea did much better than, say, Brazil (which too grew very fast for many decades) in channelling resources to education and health care, and this greatly helped South Korea to achieve participatory economic growth and to raise the quality of life of its people. On the other hand, South Korea too continued to neglect arrangements for social security and for safety nets needed to prevent destitution, thereby remaining vulnerable to downside risks. It had to pay heavily, as a result of this lacuna, when the Asian economic crisis of 1997 came. This was also the time when the voice that democracy gives to the poor was most missed, and democracy became a major political cause in South Korea and also in Indonesia, Thailand, and elsewhere. We need provisions for "downturn with security" as well as "growth with equity", and also have to recognise the need for democracy for the provision of political incentives (In addition to the intrinsic importance of democratic rights). The market economy may be highly productive, but it cannot substitute for other important institutions.

5. International Asymmetries and Institutions

Development of appropriate non-market institutions is important also for tackling inequalities between nations. The need for a global commitment to democracy and to participatory governance can hardly be overstressed. Contrary to an often-repeated claim, there is no basic conflict between promoting economic growth and supporting democracies and social rights, and in fact democratic freedoms and social opportunities can contribute substantially to economic development. However, as George Soros has pointed out, international business concerns often have a strong preference for working in orderly and highly organized autocracies rather than in activist and less regimented democracies, and this can be a regressive influence on equitable development. Further, multinational firms can also exert their influence on the priorities of public expenditure in less secure third-world countries in the direction of giving preference to the safety and convenience of the managerial classes and of privileged workers over the removal of widespread illiteracy, medical deprivation and other adversities of the underdogs of society. These possibilities do not, of course, impose any insurmountable barrier to development, but it is important that the surmountable barriers be diagnosed and actually be surmounted.

Aside from the impact of asymmetries in global economic power, the distribution of the benefits of international interactions depends also on a variety of global social arrangements, including trade agreements, patent laws, medical initiatives, educational exchanges, facilities for technological dissemination, ecological and environmental restraints, and fair treatment of accumulated debts (often incurred by irresponsible military rulers of the past who were in many cases encouraged by one side or the other in the Cold War which was particularly active over Africa). The issues urgently need global attention. So does the issue of the management of conflicts, local wars and global spending on armament, often encouraged by arms-selling rich countries. For example, as the Human Development Report 1994 of the United Nationals Development Programme pointed out, not only were the top five arms-exporting countries in the world precisely the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations, but also they were, together, responsible for 86 per cent of all the conventional weapons exported during the period studied.

Also, the financial architecture of the world that we have inherited from the past (including institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and other institutions) was largely set up in the 1940s, following the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. The main challenge at that time was to respond to what were then seen as the big problems of the post-war world. In the middle 1940s, the bulk of Asia and Africa was still under imperialist dominance of one kind or another, and was hardly in a position to challenge the institutional divisions of power and authority that the allied powers imposed on the world. Tolerance of economic insecurity and of poverty was much greater then than it is today; the idea of human rights was still very weak; the power of NGOs had not emerged yet; and democracy was definitely not seen as a global entitlement.

The world is a very different place now from what it was then. The force of global protests partly reflect a new mood and a fresh inclination to challenge the world establishment, and it is, to a great extent, the global equivalent of the within-nation protests associated with labour movements and political radicalism. Indeed, the recent outbursts of global doubts have something in common with the spirit of an old American song - a defiant verse traced to the great Leadbelly:

"In the home of the brave, land of the free,
I will not be put down by no bourgeoisie."

In fact, of course, radicalism was not really as powerful in America then as Leadbelly's song suggests, but the determined spirit which it reflected contributed over time to many practical changes, and even ultimately to the growth of the power of organized labour about which so many industrialists complain so much today.

To some extent, there is a parallel here with global protest movements: they are not particularly powerful yet in organizational terms, but they are, to a great extent, an intimation of things to come. Since the questions they raise are real, adequate answers have to be sought, no mater how unpolished, crude and breathless the protesters may look to the world establishment. There is a need for change. The world of Bretton Woods is definitely not the world of today, and there is a strong case for far-reaching re-examination of the institutional structure of the international world.

To some extent, this has begun to occur in the form of changing priorities within international institutions. For example, even though the removal of poverty and deprivation was not a major object of the Bretton Woods resolutions, it has now become, at least formally, the acknowledged principal goal of the World Bank. There is more rethinking on the burden of debts of poor countries, and also on the older IMF-World Bank practice of imposing grossly formulated "structural reforms" on poor countries often with damaging consequences on social infrastructure. Many more adjustments will be needed in policies and institutions that make up the international architecture now, inherited from the Bretton Woods. The United Nations too can also play a much bigger part in forcing attention on these broader concerns, if it is liberated from the penury in which it has been typically kept by inadequate financial provisions and by the refusal of some member countries to pay their dues. These issues need urgent attention, and doubts provide a better starting point than complacency.

6. A Concluding Remark

To conclude, there is a compelling need in the contemporary world to ask questions about the world order over a wide front. I have tried to identify some critically important questions that must be addressed with some urgency. They suggest, I have argued, the need for extending the institutional provisions in the world, taking note of the complementarity of different institutions (including the market, but also democratic systems, social opportunities, political liberties, and other institutional features - old and new).

The anti-globalisation protests can be productive not because globalisation is an evil in itself. Indeed, far from it. Even the anti-globalisation protests are part of the general process of globalisation, from which there is no escape and no great reason to seek escape. But there are critically important issues that need to be addressed in the mixed world of massive comfort and extreme misery in which we live - often far too peacefully and complacently. There is a need to reduce the contrast between our universe of remarkable possibilities and the stubborn prevalence of relentless deprivation.

The world needs more interaction - not less. To recognize this is the very opposite of an invitation to become a well-frog, a kupamanduka. The first step is to ask the questions that have to be asked. To dismiss, as is often proposed, the doubts that the protestors raise on the ground the answers given by the protesters are crude and inadequate would be quite the wrong response. Doubts and protests do not have to be exactly right to be productive and fruitful. Their most immediate function is not to allow under-examined but critically important questions to pass by, in Francis Bacon's words, "lightly without intervention." We must do better than that. We owe it to the world.

Speaker: Professor Amartya Sen
Dr Sen is Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and Lamont University Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. He is considered a world authority on globalisation and inequality, and on the possibilities of wealth creation in emerging economies. Professor Sen won the Nobel prize for Economics in 1998. Born in India in 1933, he has taught at Oxford, Delhi University and the London School of Economics.

Professor Sen has published widely on the subject of economics, philosophy, politics and decision theory. His latest book, Development as Freedom, views the enhancement of human freedom as both the principal end and the most effective means of achieving development.




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