Much has been talked about globalisation, its pros and cons, its promises and failures, and how it can or cannot help developing countries follow the trajectories of development charted by those who have already achieved the distinction of being officially called the ‘developed nations’. The debates have centred on pure economics of it: the merits or otherwise of market economics based on international trade and investment, with resource allocation mediated by international free market forces. In more sense than one, globalisation is not new – even before the Europeans rode the high tide of globalisation, Chinese and Indian traders dominated the globalised market of pre-medieval world.
There are three important factors that are overlooked in most discourses on the current round of globalisation, although these have potential to make significant impact on the lives of billions of people in poor countries which globalisation has simply passed by. First, when Britain and America led their brand of globalisation in the eighteenth to the twentieth century, they ensured that they were themselves not ‘globalised’ – they developed their domestic market and capacity of the masses to play their role in the market. This helped in broadening and deepening the effects of globalisation by making sure that the benefits were not confined to the rich and the moneyed who went out to ‘globalise’. That unfortunately is not happening in many of the poorer countries now where millions of people remain disenfranchised, and too incapacitated to play their role in a global market.
The second most important departure from previous globalisations, and perhaps the one that holds out the most prospect for the poor and the powerless, has been in the concept of global rights, especially in the global policy regimes on rights to development and application of humanitarian laws. Just as the current chapter of globalisation drew the world closer in terms of free market mechanism and unfettered capital flows, it also brought about a realisation that basic rights to protection, assistance and development as enshrined in different human rights conventions and international humanitarian laws needed global application. These are often referred to as second generation rights involving universal minimum welfare entitlements, as opposed to the first generation rights which relate to individual liberty and freedom on which an universal consensus ideology is yet to emerge. You could not have economic growth and prosperity for some, while turning a blind eye to the denial of basic rights to life and protection for a large majority of the world. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) and reshaping of the international aid architecture following the Monterrey consensus are part of this global agenda. MDGs are not just wish lists for donor agencies or governments, but reflect commitments to ensure that various instruments under the international humanitarian laws and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) are met by the governments in the first instance.
For the first time in the history of humanity, the language of rights entered the frame of discussions and policy making at national and international levels in the past decade. The economic, social and cultural rights include a number of claims, like claims to social security and a certain standard of living, including claims to adequate food, clothing, housing, health care, sanitation, education, etc. Prior to this, despite having various conventions and protocols agreed and ratified by governments, these hardly provided any strong reference point when it came to implementation, especially in developing countries. The introduction of rights in development discourse recognised that access to good healthcare is not just something a good government ought to provide, it is a right of the villagers who never see their health workers visit the derelict primary healthcare centre to demand it. Likewise, when the devastating Tsunami hit the Indian Ocean area, the affected families in the Tsunami-hit areas had a right to receive assistance in the form of food, shelter and livelihoods from the national governments and from the international humanitarian agencies like the UN, the International and national non-government organisations. It is no longer the case of ‘a good government’ doing a favour to its chosen subjects, nor a poor woman surviving on the generosity of a large-hearted non-government organisations (NGO). There are rights, duties (duty of care) and obligations that come into the equation. Thanks to globalisation that triggered this global thinking.
This has been the most significant achievement of globalisation: the recognition of individuals as ‘subjects’ of international law, and so of international concern, and bringing into the development equation the economic, social and cultural rights which national and international development processes ought to strengthen.
Thanks to globalisation, global media and public opinion, the renewed commitment to providing basic needs of life and livelihoods as a matter of right has meant that governments can no longer hide behind the curtain of sovereignty and still maintain a facade of a nation which tramples upon the rights and liberties of individuals. China could get away with Tiananmen massacre in 1989, but Chinese businesses and government would shudder to think what would become of their global dreams if the same were to occur in the 21st century. It is globalisation again which by leveraging public scrutiny of war crimes now enables international governance to bring to book perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Finally, it is globalisation again which has made the world flatter by democratising technology. That you and I, and billions others, can communicate in real time, although separated by a distance of tens of thousands of miles, and that we ordinary folks can have the same access to vital information which in the past would have been handed down to us from those who rule and govern us, mean that each one of us now have tremendous power to influence the world. After the Haiti earthquake, we saw social media, (the facebook, twitter, Digg, Myspace to name a few) play a vital role in bringing out the reality and gravity of the situation through numerous stories and eye-witness accounts as the situation started unfolding from day one, including where aid agencies were failing in reaching out to the affected communities. Five years ago when the Tsunami happened in Asia, we were relying on the big newspapers and TV channels to bring us stories, which sometimes were either late or only covered areas the TV cameras could reach. After the Haiti earthquake, through the millions of blogs and micro-blogs, we saw millions of concerned citizens the world over expressing their solidarity with the victims. Through these, we also saw a more extensive and mature portrayal of the crisis that was unfolding: the catastrophic destruction and damages aside, we also saw the challenges in providing any rescue or relief operations, the lack of infrastructure for providing relief and why aid was slow in reaching out to the affected communities, real time stories of what the humanitarian response was or wasn’t doing. We were no longer relying solely on the news that the governments, established media and aid agencies were dishing out to us. That was a remarkable transformation in a short span of five years.