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Is Globalization Harmful? Pre-departure Reading, Pt. 2 (21 Days)

July 12, 2010

This is another one of those boring ol’ “blogging through my reading packet” posts. The next reading is a chapter taken from The Concise Guide to Global Human Rights (I’ve definitely settled on the Amazon format for my citations) called “Globalization And Development: Human And Sustainable Or Corporate And Cancerous?” by Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy.

Oh, boy. Something tells me the tone of this piece might just be slightly different from the last. Right off the bat:

Human rights are ignored and violated routinely when global trade decisions are based on getting the cheapest labor, slackest environmental and labor regulations, huge tax cuts for transnational corporations, and freedom from any kind of long-term commitment to the region in which these corporations operate. Poor countries are pitted against each other in self-destructive competition to attract foreign investment, even in the name of development. Such a scenario recalls terrible images of food being dropped from planes to desperate, starving people who push and beat each other trying to get their small share.

Uf-da. Yep, there’s been a slight change of pace. However, while they certainly take a critical view of globalization, I’m not sure that its authors would necessarily see “the greater integration of markets” (the definition of globalization from the previous reading) as totally undesirable. Rather, they point out that globalization as it has happened in the real world is severely flawed, and remind us that even with a “free market” injustice still remains, since integration of markets is not necessarily synonymous with a level playing field:

…the rich Northern countries take their economic supremacy for granted instead of acknowledging how they acquired that supremacy through unjust trade policies based on colonialist and imperialist practices. To erase that past and suddenly declare all countries equal in world trade is a cynical move to continue exploiting the South under the guise of promoting development and offering aid.

The authors go further than that, though, questioning an assumption that seems to be central to Wolf’s definition of globalization:

Vandana Shiva and other majority world thinkers and activists challenge consumer-societies’ view of what even constitutes poverty. Supporters of sustainable development argue that subsistence farmers living in small villages may look poor to people who measure well-being in terms of how many cell phones, computers, televisions, and designer shoes one owns.

How do we define poverty? The way we answer this question should profoundly impact our approach to development. It seems to me that current economic analyses (at least the ones I have learned about) are only able to look at progress in terms of consumer goods. But if this is the standard of development, and the United States is the model of a “developed nation,” then we are in a tiny bit of trouble (sorry for all the blockquotes, but this is really good stuff):

If all countries did miraculously attain the level of cancerous growth, measured only in terms of the GNP (Gross National Product), the planet would be stripped bare of all its resources, poisoned, and buried under a global garbage dump that would push it right over the brink of total collapse. Measuring a nation’s well-being in terms of GNP is an extremely one-sided and myopic approach to development, and one that is designed to ignore all human rights… As feminist economist Marilyn Waring argues, the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) adopted by the United Nations to measure and compare the economic well-being of countries ‘counts oil spills and wars as contributors to economic growth, while child-rearing and housekeeping are deemed valueless.’

Not only is defining progress in this way environmentally unsustainable, but they suspect that it also smacks of condescension:

People ‘deprived’ of McDonald’s (which spends over $2 billion a year on advertising its image alone) and cell phones, people who live in simple housing where climate allows, with access to land on which to grow the crops they need to feed themselves, drinking water, fishing, and other activities indigenous to particular regions, may not consider themselves poor. Referring to such communities as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ implies that they are inferior to ‘developed’ countries and need to change their ways and to keep striving towards the illusive goal and definitive accomplishment of being ‘developed.’

The authors call this consumption-focused mindset “developmentalism.” True development, they argue, is focused on securing human rights, first and foremost. They blast developmentalist tactics such as mega-projects (they cite the Narmada Valley Dam project in India, I thought of the Three Gorges Dam in China) and many-strings-attached aid packages that are “‘negotiated’ with the countries’ governments without consulting the citizenry” and force “debtor governments [to] give up virtually all sovereignty.” I’m not even going to touch the topic of majority world debt right now, that’s a whole blog post’s worth of material in itself.

So, that’s that. Bless my liberal little heart, I heartily agree with a lot of what they’ve said (except perhaps when they criticize the spread of high-yield agricultural practices elsewhere in the chapter; Norman Borlaug is still seriously my hero). The question is: what do we do?

The solution, they suggest, will be the result of what they call “globalization from below,” as opposed to the dominant system of “globalization from above” by “transnational corporations, elite financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), and governments…” The driving force of globalization from below is

…the grassroots networking of common people, NGOs, and civil society organizations (CSOs), all the various movers and shakers like labor groups, activists of many different stripes, women’s groups, environmentalists, and so on; people primarily concerned with how corporate globalization is eroding not just their own human rights, but those of their sisters and brothers around the planet.

It’s an interesting notion, and one that I have to support. The more we can democratize the forces of globalization, the better, since one of the greatest hardships from which the world’s poor suffer is the lack of a voice. Even in the best cases, where leaders are elected democratically and with minimal corruption (such cases are rare), developing countries lack the clout necessary to influence the powers-that-be, such as the aforementioned IMF, WB, and WTO. This is why I am a fan of the concept of global citizenship: not only does it emphasize the need for “first world” citizens to own up to their wider responsibilities (which is clearly not happening: just count the number of US politicians who advocate anti-genocide policy as part of their platform), but it also elevates all members of the human population to equal importance, deflating the unearned privilege of US citizens.

I really wish that this article had made things clearer, criticizing corporate development while managing to advocate a clear and powerful alternative. But, if anything, it just made my confusion worse. Perhaps I’m stuck in typical American ideology, but I still feel like market driven (corporate?) growth is necessary to secure even those fundamental rights that Fischlin and Nandorfy say we must prioritize. I found it interesting that their discussion didn’t include much about health care, which to me is certainly a fundamental human right: no mother should have to watch her children die of preventable diseases, and no husband should have to lose his wife and daughter to complications from a “natural” childbirth. The problem is that no matter how much we would like to defend the right to receive health care, vaccines, consultations, surgical equipment, braces, stents, antibiotics, and specialized training (etc.) all cost large sums of money. And while grassroots movements are hugely important for empowering people, they don’t tend to generate a whole lot of capital.

Clearly, I need to spend more time thinking about this. Anyone have a better grasp on how everything works? Help me out, pls. Kthx.

I’ll end with this awesome quote from Fischlin and Nandorfy:

On the one hand, the citizens of the richest countries cannot deny their inevitable complicity with the structures that make our lives so easy. But that consciousness of complicity need not lead to cynicism or abjection. Once people move from identifying only with their nation and think of themselves as global citizens, the old dichotomy of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ starts to open up to new possibilities along with the borders across which democratic ideas and practices can then flow.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick Wallin permalink
    July 12, 2010 9:50 PM

    Sup David. Good stuff you’ve got here. I’m going to reply to both globalization posts at the same time, but I’ll try to keep my comments brief:

    Martin Wolf’s definition of globalization seems to me to be the one thing this planet truly needs. Separation breeds conflict. If we could do away with national, cultural, and religious barriers, the only thing left to fight about would be class. To quote John Lennon:

    “Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for; and no religion, too.”

    In other words, world peace.

    Now, I can think of two areas where one might object to this. First was mentioned in this post, namely that poor people probably don’t consider themselves “poor”, so we shouldn’t try to make them “rich”. Second wasn’t mentioned, but that is the destruction of language/culture.

    My only responses would be that if there were no national boundaries, the poor people would eventually be surrounded by rich people. If not surrounded physically, at least economically. They would, I think, very soon realize that they are at a distinct disadvantage, and would want to be given a leg up. Regarding culture, while it seems cutthroat, I think it wouldn’t be so bad if there were only one language/culture. Obviously you cannot do away with culture as it naturally occurs, but think of this: everyone likes, to some degree, their own culture. So eventually, if there were only one, everyone would be just peachy. I’d take it, in order to avoid the conflicts inherent in cultural differences, anyway.

    So globalization (removing national/economic barriers, leading presumably to a natural homogenization of culture, language, and (hopefully) class) sounds to me like a wonderful thing.

    How to get there (top-down or bottom-up) is another question. 🙂

    My one problem with globalization: As you cannot have *no* government, presumably the globalized planet would have a single government. Democracy is already being stretched to the breaking point trying to handle our own country. Distance (and the cultural differences associated with it) is a sap to democracy. It would be so hard to have a (functioning) democratic world government that I am afraid it would eventually turn into an empire. There can be, of course, benevolent dictators, but that seems unlikely.

    Okay, could go on forever. I’ll leave it at that 🙂 Something to think about! I look forward to your future stuff!

  2. July 12, 2010 10:14 PM

    I like it. Can’t help but jump on you here: Yeah, advocating one culture/language sure is easy for us, the ones who currently have the dominant world culture/language. How do you feel about learning Chinese? 😉 Similarly, we are certainly part of the dominant culture (though there are certainly tons of things about our culture that I would love to see changed), so how do we escape the hypocrisy of selling that to the rest of the world? What would a truly global culture look like? [Edit: I see now that I kinda misread your post, the world culture wouldn’t necessarily be our modern secular (American?) culture, but some kind of synthesis of everyone’s, that everyone would accept as their own? It makes me wonder, though, how would a transition to one culture really work? And again, what on Earth would that look like?]

    Another point (and I aim to do at least one blog post on this) is that true globalization (I don’t think we can really exclude class from this term, since American citizenship is practically a class in and of itself), were it to go into effect right now, would result in a huge loss of comfort and privilege for both of us. I’m honestly struggling to be able to say that I would embrace that, but to say it’s hard to swallow would be a ridiculous understatement. To quote my personal hero Paul Farmer of Partners in Health: “I love [white liberals], love ’em to death. They’re on our side….But WL’s think all the world’s problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don’t believe that. There’s a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It’s what separates us from roaches.”

  3. July 12, 2010 10:25 PM

    Also, yeah, “one world government” makes me shudder, I just can’t see how people could be well represented under that huge of a system. Thanks a lot for reading, and for your thoughts, I always enjoy what you write 😀

  4. Tarini permalink
    July 13, 2010 7:50 AM

    It’s been some time since my last globalization course, but I found it interesting how just sticking the word “feminist” in front of “economist” helps challenge traditional economic definitions (i.e. market, value, etc.). Obviously, that’s intricately tied to your point about healthcare–how much value and discussion do we give to women’s health, anyway? And that’s without getting started on the availability (or not) of birth control and its economic implications.

    None of those thoughts go together or make sense but I’ll hope you don’t screen comments too vigorously. Just wanted to express that I’m always grateful to see feminist points brought up in a non-pandering and intelligent way.

  5. Nick Wallin permalink
    July 13, 2010 8:15 AM

    I probably should have elaborated more on my point about there eventually being “one culture”, but what I meant was, it doesn’t matter which culture it is. I agree with what you’re saying in that if there was one culture being legally imposed on other people, there would be backlash (everyone wants the one world culture to be their culture). But I think more likely it would be a gradual change, with, as you said, a sort of mix of many cultures.

    The main point was this: Again, it doesn’t matter which culture it is. When the children grow up in it, they will like whatever it is. That’s what I meant by “everyone likes their own culture”. “Their own culture” in this case is not what they are ethnically (American/European/Middle Eastern) but rather what children on the globalized planet grow up with (the world-mix).

    Good point about American standard of living probably dropping with globalization. It’d probably be “fair” considering the huge privilege we have, but good luck convincing people of that 😉

  6. Nick Wallin permalink
    July 13, 2010 8:52 AM

    And I guess my real point is that perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to preserve languages and cultures that are dying out. Yes, it’s very sad, but don’t different cultures by definition breed misunderstanding and therefore conflict?

    P.S. I actually took a year of Chinese, thank you very much 😛

  7. Nick Wallin permalink
    July 13, 2010 8:53 AM

    comment reply fail… read the longer one first

  8. July 13, 2010 12:27 PM

    D’oh! Should have known that, what with you studying abroad in Hong Kong and all that. You’re just better prepared for life in the New World Order than I am, I suppose.

  9. July 13, 2010 1:07 PM

    Bwah! Tarini, if I screened posts based on the degree to which they “go together or make sense,” I’d have to moderate my whole blog out of existence before I got around to blocking one of your comments.

    I really don’t think globalization can really be discussed without bringing up feminism. You don’t even have to understand feminist ideology to see that empowering women is absolutely fundamental to any effort to combat poverty. For me that point is so blindingly obvious, I don’t think that it can even be called “feminism”-not that feminism itself shouldn’t be blindingly obvious. Especially since too often people will readily support it without critically analyzing their own attitudes and culture, as if patriarchy and misogyny were confined to the “Third World.”

  10. July 28, 2010 5:33 PM

    Hey Nick,
    So this has been bugging me for a while, now. I haven’t had time to get dragged into a discussion, and I certainly don’t have it now, but I think this is too important to let slip. Not sure how I missed it the first time around:

    And I guess my real point is that perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to preserve languages and cultures that are dying out. Yes, it’s very sad, but don’t different cultures by definition breed misunderstanding and therefore conflict?

    I think your fears of “difference breeding conflict” are a little exaggerated here. Yes, obviously, identifiable differences provide targets for conflict. It plays nicely into our cognitive bias against the Other, of course. But I think this misses most of the other factors that cause conflicts. So, yes, making X difference between religions/cultures go away (if it were possible) could temporarily alleviate some conflict, but it’s not going to solve all our problems. Not by a long shot. Besides, just look at the family feuding that used to occur in the South. You don’t need a separate cultural or linguistic identity to fuel hatred: all you need is a different last name.

    Even if the harm of cultural diversity did justify its disappearance, is that our only option? Certainly not, I’d say. Can’t we have tolerant coexistence? I think we can, or at least I’d like to hope so.

    It seems that you already recognize that cultural diversity is valuable. I don’t have time to get into all the reasons why that’s true, but it’s definitely another really important thing to consider.

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