Post-2015: A World The People Need

Post-2015: A  World the People Need

Jeffrey Sachs, founder of the Earth Institute, for whom pushing for an end to poverty by 2025 has become an obsession, is now propounding upon a global solutions network. Ever the optimist, despite the Rio+ 20’s The World We Want final political document being dubbed by some critics as the longest suicide note in history, he is giving his imprimatur to a Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon initiative to craft a more sustainable world post-2015. Nobody in her right mind would not wish him well, but what are the odds?

To his credit, in the run-up to the Rio+20, the Secretary-General had  made every effort to ascertain that the summit would live up to expectations, engaging a broad base of stakeholders from around the globe. Based on their inputs, UN had staff managed to assemble a zero draft that looked promising. However, all crucial points were removed from the draft submitted to the heads of state in Rio, effectively reducing it to a mere reaffirmation of what had been agreed upon two decades earlier in the same beautiful place. Despite the cataclysmic scenarios painted, even the highly-acclaimed the Kyoto Accord was allowed to die with just a whimper.

Sachs himself acknowledges that “… too many governments and politicians are beholden to vested interests, and too few politicians think in time horizons that extend past the next election.”  Why does such a dismal state of affairs still allow to Sachs to keep faith? Mark Halle of the International Institute for Sustainable Development describes it beautifully:

“The final third of the outcome … It is not that it embodies firm undertakings or calls for action that are targeted, specific and accountable. It is more that it offers hooks on which different stakeholders can hang their hopes.’ Hooks on which they can hang their hopes is what kept propelling the faithful to the carnavals from Bali to Copenhagen, bringing them to Rio for the grand finale. No doubt Sachs harbors confidence that such hopes will serve to carry civil society to the next summit in another three of four years.

Why such dissonance between pundits and people on one hand and governments on the other? Although we have long heard that global crises demand global solutions, bear in mind that all politics is local. If recent history were to serve as guide, most politicians preferring to remain in office as long as possible recognize that they have to court the favour of corporate sponsors.

Capitalism itself is oft touted as a very strong force in producing things that can improve our lives, and the ensuing inequality is something we should learn to live with. However, Stiglitz reminds us that what drives capitalism is the profit motive, and that a lot of the inequalities we see around us are not due to creative activity, but actually are the result of exploitive activity. Exploitation of people, exploitation of the environment. Why such predatory behaviour?

In an excellent new book describing the United States,  Twilight of the Elites, journalist Chris Hayes argues that the ruling class has failed us. Behind the seemingly haphazard pile-up of recent calamities he sees a pattern: In each case, a cadre of Very Important People succumbed to some combination of blinkered groupthink, deception, self-dealing, fraud, smugness, and self-delusion. And in virtually every case, they escaped accountability. Or, as Hayes puts it: “All the smart people screwed up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.”
Hayes argues that we’re “led” by a grasping, status-obsessed elite class that’s increasingly socially and economically distant and prone to rigging the game for its own benefit, the public good be damned.

Thus, we have time and again witnessed the taxpayer being forced to fund corporation bail outs, whilst the CEOs continue to enjoy their (ill-gotten?) wealth. It would appear that by providing corporations a persona, the US Supreme Court has given casteism a new twist by basing it on the amount of donations to politicial candidates. It is difficult to attribute all the millions contributed to citizenhood and political conviction alone, there must certainly be an element of investment lurking somewhere in there. It is certainly telling that there has been no mention of rising poverty and increasing inequity in the US presidential campaign to date.

What could be done to ensure a greater probability of success this time around? First of all, we need to look at the problem squarely: what are the drivers that have brought us to this state?  Has it been a desire for possession and recognition, as depicted by Matzlow, or the animal spirits more recently brought to the fore by Akerlof and Shiller? Or some other rendition of the push for Gold, Gospel, and Glory behind colonialsm? One thing is certain: in the drive to build empire, either at the individual or national level, accumulation is paramount, be it through manipulating the market or directly by executive fiat, or by some combination thereof.  However, the Asian Development Bank recently warned us  that technological progress, globalisation and market-oriented reform – the main drivers of  rapid growth – are also responsible for the increasing wedge between rich and poor.

Therefore, it is time we show a little humility and abandon our condescending ‘The World WE Want’ tag line, and instead  enter into equal-discourse with the poor and vulnerable to identify “A World the People Need”. This shouldn’t be a recycling of the “Basic-Needs” paradigm of the seventies, but a genuine attempt to treat the poor as equals. Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies shows that four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500.  It follows, then, that a better way to fight poverty would be to make middle-income countries’ domestic policies genuinely more “pro-poor”  by adopting a ‘poverty lens’ for all policies and budget lines.

The alarming rate at which the Arctic cap is melting, and the revealation that policy response to the financial crisis has mostly been to preserve the status quo, alongwith the repeated failure of the global community to take concerted action, should convince us that this is not just a generational challenge. It is a challenge to civilization itself, which calls for nothing less than the emergence of A New Consciousness. One that embodies a conviction that people are the real wealth of civilizations and that all of us are fellow travellers on this spaceship earth.  One that calls for ‘moral capitalism’ wherein enlightened self-interest serves as a guide to trade and investment.

Recognizing that greed has been fueling the environmentally unsustainable economic expansion driving dangerous climate change, thereby depleting the natural resources upon which many of the poor depend for the livelihoods, we should learn to build upon each other’s strengths, and try to forge private-public-people partnerships to create green economies. The new consciousness of good corporate citizens would drive such moral investments, while the dedicated bureaucrats on board would see that public policies do not run tangential to shared objectives. Only by having the people assume equal ownership and responsibility, though,  could sustainability in the real sense of the word ever be achieved.

HS Dillon, Presidential Special Envoy for Poverty Alleviation

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