Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Governance and Vision: Will global interdependence be our destiny?

ISMAIL SERAGELDIN, Vice-President, The World Bank

As we come to the close of the century and are about to start a new one, what are the challenges of our times?

I think it is a time where certainly a great deal of wealth and well-being exists, but also a time when a great deal of insecurity and instability is found throughout the world.

Peace and security remain an illusive goal, as we know from the many, many conflicts all over the world, including most recently the NATO intervention in Kosovo. But that is just one of some 40 wars going on around the world.

In most of these [wars] there has been a collapse of the rule of law and there is no respect for the diversity of other people. There is a need for more than tolerance for others; we need an embracing of diversities.

For if we have successfully turned back the specter of nuclear holocaust associated with the world wars, the idea of a third world war, it doesn’t change the situation for the poor who die, by telling them that these are local conflicts, that they’re not international conflicts.

These wars are just as murderous and just as despoiling of our common humanity to witness, wherever they are occurring.

In fact, they have produced close to 70 million refugees around the world. Some of them you see on your television screens; most of them you don’t. What we have to remind people who rely on television for news is that most of the misery around the world is not photographed.

I have a colleague who was speaking about the misery in Southern Soudan to a U.S. Congressman and the Congressman said: "But I haven’t seen that on CNN."

It’s true, nevertheless; the fact the camera wasn’t there to record it, it’s still true.

It is to Canada’s great honour that it hosted the effort on banning land mines, a situation which claims so many victims and is so murderous that in many parts of the world the poor cannot go back to farming the land on which they live. The legacy of past wars is horrendous.

All of this, to me, is a failure in respect of human rights, 50 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed.

It is, in fact, the conflict that’s beginning to emerge between the notion of a state’s sovereignty – for a state to do whatever it wishes – and the idea that there are, and should be, universal respect for human rights.

That notion, of course, has to be extended. It has to be extended because it is not just civil and political rights that are at stake. There are also economic, social and cultural rights and, in most instances, women’s rights.

Half of the population of the world are discriminated against, viscerally and miserably; girls are mutilated and women are oppressed in the names of convention.

And that, too, is in indivisible part of human rights that needs to be addressed.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, women produce 80 per cent of the food; earn 10 per cent of the wage income, [but only] own one per cent of the land.

When we talk about human rights, we should remember that they are indivisible and, in fact, most recently we have been extending that human right to the child as well.

Leaving aside the issue of peace and security and human rights, there is the issue of economic well-being.

Although we’re having a boom period in the United States and the stock markets and so on, we are witnessing growing inequality, growing inequities between countries and within countries to a stunning degree.

A 1992 UN human development report shows that the richest 20 per cent of the population consume about 85 per cent of the world’s income, while the remaining 80 per cent get about 15 per cent and [of the latter] the bottom 20 per cent get less than 1.4 per cent of the world’s income.

A generation ago the rich, which are the industrialized countries, used to be 30 times as rich as the poorest 30 per cent. They are now more than 65 times as rich as the poorest 20 per cent.

And those same rich say that they cannot afford to give .3 of one per cent of their income to the remaining 80 per cent of humanity. That figure is lower than .3 of one per cent of GNP, despite multiple declarations that they would give at least .7.

I know that poverty is a condition that is experienced at the household and individual level. There are rich people in poor countries and there are poor people in rich countries.

But the gap that is growing is alarming.

Extreme poverty is mostly found outside of the borders of the industrialized countries in the developing countries, where you see people in conditions below any definition of human decency, scrounging around for food in garbage heaps.

What is even more stunning is that there are 800 million people, mostly women and children throughout the world who, because of extreme poverty, are malnourished and hungry.

In many parts of the world there is actual starvation at a time when, in the industrialized countries, the biggest problem is that of obesity.

That is a challenge to our common humanity.

The question we have, therefore, is what sort of a world are we having when we declare on the one hand the indivisibility of human rights and on the one hand that the values of our common humanity should be observed everywhere, yet we witness and are willing to allow these conditions to continue?

It’s a challenge of values. It’s a challenge of whether we can, in fact, feel the human kinship with people who are outside of our immediate national boundary and recognize our common humanity in all of the human family.

All of these manifestations are also manifest in something which we refer to as globalization. And globalization has multiple manifestations.

One of the manifestations is the global market and another is the transformation to the knowledge-based economy. These are very powerful forces.

In fact, we have a global market today in capital markets with transactions going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week that transact $l.4 trillion a day. That’s enough to buy and sell the whole GNP of the United States in a week. It’s more than $1 billion a minute.

This enormous frenzy of trading has resulted in a decoupling of financial flows from investments. The money is whizzing around computers all over the world. It impacts on currencies, impacts on all sorts of things and, in fact, has partially created problems with program trading and so on. This may have contributed to the collapse of some of the weaker economies in Eastern Asia.

The net result is that now, after the East Asia crisis, there’s a fear that these financial transactions need a new financial architecture. There’s a real danger it could get out of hand, because the regulatory mechanisms that are needed to make a market function – like those in place on Wall Street – do not exist in international capital flows. There’s a demand now that a new financial architecture be set in place.

So, the movement of capital is just one manifestation of globalization.

The other one, which is more profound, is the transformation of the production processes and the drivers of added-value away from material-based production towards the knowledge-based economy.

This transformation has been very profound. It can best be seen when one examines the differences among the old giants and new giants.

For instance, General Motors and Ford Motor Company have $160 billion and $140 billion dollars in sales, respectively. GM has almost half a million employees and Ford a third of a million. GM has a market capitalizations of $64 billion and Ford $71 billion.

Microsoft and Intel have a fraction of the employees and a fraction of the sales, but have market capitalization of $420 billion and $180 billion, respectively.

This shows the real value is going towards the knowledge-based society.

The knowledge-based economy has certain traits, among them is that it increases the gaps and the inequalities. Therefore, it requires a special effort to design social interventions to balance it in order to bring its benefits to the many.

The third level at which globalization operates is communications, which have made the boundaries of nation states ethereal and permeable to ideas and production and the manifestation of a new communication and new culture which is partly transforming our way of life. The Internet is one part of it, e-mail is another.

Statistics from the United States show that people are sending 260 million pieces of postal mail a day, compared with 2.2 billion e-mails. And the e-mail volume is growing at 10 per cent a month. That’s a stunning indication of the transformation that is taking place and the new world that is being created before our eyes.

It’s a world of openness and, in a governance sense, it’s a world that enables the civil society and others to participate and find information as never before.

On the Internet today there are 830 million web pages available for free for browsing and by 2005 there will be eight billion or more. This amazing availability of information, no longer physically constrained in one place and which can be accessed almost from anywhere in the world, is changing the parameters by which we do business and how we will be interacting with each other.

In this rush always to be faster and do more and reach further, are we not sometimes losing something essential and important to the human condition, which is the caring about the other human being, taking the time to meet, relate, get to know the other human being?

That is a question for us and for all societies who are concerned about what happens when that frenzied pursuit results in grandmothers being left in hospitals, the breakdown of the nuclear family and the care between people.

The fourth level at which globalization occurs is the issue of cultural identity. Above and beyond, therefore, the transformation of production, the financial and information connectivity, is what is happening in terms of homogenization and assertion of local specificity in terms of culture.

Just look at the large number of TV channels that a connected North American consumer can actually receive. Throughout the world [these] images, largely coming from the United States, are permeating and crowding out a lot of the other images.

You feel it in Canada. They feel it in Europe. They feel it even more in the Third World.

And these images are putting a very profound challenge to the manifestations of local identity and culture, which you find even in the most remote and poorest places in the world.

Human beings assert their specificity by cultural expression and that cultural expression is at risk of disappearing under a flood of imagery and iconography that comes with the new media and the new technologies. In fact, there will be a rupture between a generation that lived in an oral tradition, or a written tradition, to a younger generation that will even almost skip the written form and go straight into the audio visual and communicative form. And that rupture will, therefore, create a problem of the notion of social solidarity.

Against that background, we are living in a marvelous and exhilarating time in the sciences.

There is a scientific revolution of profound proportions. In my own judgment, we are now on the cusp of a biological revolution of greater proportions than we witnessed in the 40 glorious years in physics between 1905 and 1945, where almost all the concepts were rethought in physics.

This biological revolution is going to impact profoundly on almost every facet of our lives, from health care to agricultural production, to livestock, to environmental management, to a lot of things.

This biological revolution, which enables us today to manipulate the genes and, in fact, be so precise is just awesome to me. We’re able not only to decipher the genetic sequences of 30,000 base pairs that make up the gene for example, but actually to move genes around and explain their manifestations.

But what that does is raise a whole range of societal issues that can be termed around ethical issues, safety issues and intellectual property rights issues.

Each of these is very different. They are interconnected and they raise profound concerns, [because] not everything that is technically feasible is ethically desirable. And, in fact, we do have for the first time the possibility of creating new organisms and, therefore, what is the relationship and the safety in terms of releasing such organisms into nature? These are the kinds of issues which we have to address.

Intellectual property rights are becoming very important, because a very large part of biotechnology research is driven by private corporations in the United States.

The magnitude of investment in biotechnology by the private sector in the United States last year was in order of $9 billion. In all of Europe, it was only about $3 billion and in the rest of the world, including Japan, it was about $1 billion.

This is [being] driven by patenting of processing and patenting of product as rapidly as possible, otherwise you wouldn’t get that kind private sector money.

It raises questions, therefore, about what happens to this science. Will the investment of the private sector be leading us towards attention to the global commons and the concerns that we have, or will it serve to bring better and better and more and more to the fewer and fewer wealthy people?

And, if the knowledge itself is patented – both in process and product – will there be access to the 80 per cent of the world who live on this less than 15 per cent of the income, who are the many, many poor in the world?

Or, are we going towards a period where there will be lack of access to this information and the ability to use it except by paying? [Does it mean] a form of a different kind of Apartheid may be part of the challenge of the future?

So these are some of the broad trends.

I would have to add two more of the very broad trends that we have to deal with.

One is demographic growth in the South; primarily global population growing at still a fast pace, even though it’s slowing down. We expect, certainly by 2050, to have somewhere around 9.5 billion population. Whether the world population will stabilize around that figure, or whether it will go a little further, [we don’t know] but we hope it will stabilize around 9 or 9.5 billion.

That is still about 3 billion more people than we have today. Almost all of those people are going be in developing countries. The industrialized countries have an ageing problem and a problem of how youth comes in, that’s why the reform of social security becomes important.

What that means is that you’ll have an enormous pressure on the school system, with [not just] 80 million youngsters in Africa and South Asia, but the rest of the world as well, coming into the age group to go to school and beyond that an enormous surge of young people looking for employment opportunities will be coming on to the job market. In India, the increment to urban population over the next 30 years will be more than twice the total population of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined.

That’s the challenge that we’re going to have to face.

And the question, therefore, is how are we going to address all of that?

This population pressure generates questions of the environmental sustainibility and again the issue of the global common.

The protection of the environment becomes a major concern for all of us. We’re all part of this ecosystem and if we don’t manage to change our ways, we will be facing very real risks.

The risks are already witnessed in the case of fisheries which – as you well know – almost everywhere in the world have been over-fished. And here in Canada you almost went to war with Europe a little while ago about fisheries. Fisheries is a classic case of the global commons not being satisfactorily protected by the sovereign state system we have.

But that’s not the only one.

The loss of tropical forests and, with their loss, the loss of habitat that occur and the loss of species and the irreversibility of biodiversity loss, is one of the major concerns we have.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, along with the climate change conventions that came out of the Rio Summit, were big efforts for humanity to take note of.

Another even more important one and one, which we’re finally beginning to wake up to, is the condition of soil fertility and soil erosion. This is especially [critical] in places like Africa, where food production is going to depend on the quality of the soil, as much as the availability of water and other nutrients.

What I want to highlight is that these are not separable problems. All of these global environmental problems are linked. There is a link directly from climate change to water to forestry to ozone depletion...all of these have different degrees of inter-connectivity.

Thus, action on one impacts on the others and lack of action on some of them make actions on some of the other factors less effective than it should be.

[Because of this] we should really have a holistic view of our responsibility to the environment and not simply pick ala carte out of the menu: I’ll work on forestry, but I won’t work on water; I’ll work on climate change, but I won’t work on biodiversity. It doesn’t work that way.

One of the major problems we will have is food.

Remember the starving I mentioned. Remember what it will mean in terms of meeting food production for 3 billion more people on the planet. And agriculture is the primary interface between human beings and the environment. It uses more than 70 per cent of the water and it uses sometimes as much as 70 to 80 per cent of the land.

And, thus, agriculture has a major impact on the environment, as well. The ability to intensify agriculture at the small holder level in the developing countries, rather than relying on producing in Canada, the United States and the Northern countries, is going to be part of the big challenges for the environmental side, as well as the poverty reduction side and food security side.

And the inter-linkages between food supply and demand with land degradation, with biodiversity loss and unsustainable forestry and climate change are all, in fact, interlinked aspects of the same problem.

It’s a very tough nut to crack. It requires behaviourial change, investment in research and extension work, and it requires balance between the public and private sector.

One of the issues we are working on is the issue of water.

In a population of close to six billion in the late 1990s, a small number of people were experiencing relative scarcity and stress in water. If we project 50 years into the future, the figure will be much larger. It’s not just the population that will be at risk. [There will be] huge environmental risks associated with it if we don’t change it.

A large part of the water is being used for irrigation. About 80 per cent of the water withdrawals in the developing countries is going for agriculture and, thus, the transformation of agriculture becomes important. It also impacts on environmental practices.

In addition, we are concerned about people who have no access to clean water and whose children are constantly dying; about three million a year. Almost every 10 seconds a child dies from waterborne diseases that could be transformed.

So, this transformation of water for people, water for food and water for nature becomes an important part of our concern

But, I don’t want to leave the impression that all the problem is population growth in the developing countries. Yes we need to worry about population growth, but we also need to worry about consumption patterns in the North.

If you examine the amount of waste generated per person in selected cities, you can see how much [greater] the ecological footprint of a person in the North is compared to that of a person in the South. It’s almost 30 times as large in terms of energy consumption, of water consumption and so on. As a result, you have a very different pattern of impact on the environment.

What is the emerging world order that will provide governance to deal with these issues?

Regretfully, there’s a world that is technically still one governed by nation states, sovereign nation states, who have the ultimate say on everything.

But, in fact, we observe increasingly that since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the emerging reality is a world that’s very much in America’s hands.

The United States is increasingly behaving unilaterally. Some of us are very concerned about the United States being in arrears to the UN in a dramatic way and we hope very much that some of that attitude will change.

If we are going to look at the way ahead and how do we move out of the situation to cope with these problems and internalize our common humanity, then clearly the issue is going to be increasing multilateralism, without which there can’t be any action.

We are going to have to rely on community and civil society to raise our concerns and raise our raise our conscience, because they are the ones who are living day to day with the problem. In fact, the entire environmental movement was based on their work. And we’re going to have to ask everywhere of a notion of governance.

And governance is not just a design of constitutions; it is about transparency, accountability, pluralism, participation and the rule of law. And all of that requires the free flow of information, a vigorous press and participation at the grassroots.

And it requires a respect for the ideas of human rights, women’s rights, the indivisibility of human rights, the recognition of no cultural specificity arguments. We have a universal code of human rights and there must be a recognition of the rights of participation and citizenship for all people. Otherwise, we know that the situation is disastrous.

If there’s no transformation and empowerment in the status of women, especially in the poorest parts of the world, there shall be no development and the conditions we see will only exacerbate and become worse.

But the problems are not just those in the developing countries.

The burning of the black churches in the Southern United States has recently been a reminder of how much work needs to be done on the issue of tolerance in the industrialized countries themselves. And this is a big challenge for all of us.

One of the keys to transform that is going to be education, which is to me the key to all else. Girl’s education [must] certainly be a central part of that, but a lot more needs to be done.

Primarily when we talk about education for all we’re talking about numbers. We say we’re still 250 million short; 120 million never went to school and another 130 million drop out after two years of school.

Even for those who are in school, the conditions [are inadequate]. Many children are crowded into one-room facilities, or makeshift outdoor facilities, where several children have to squeeze around a tiny desk and where there are few, if any supplies.

How adequate a preparation will they be getting for the competitive world of the Internet and the competitive world of the knowledge-based economy?

In almost all countries there is a gender gap and massive discrimination against the girl child in education.

That’s a very big challenge for all of us if education is going to play its role. More important than that is that the linear view of education: 12 years of school, four years of college, and then you get a degree that allows you to practice for 40 years and then you retire; that is gone.

You’re going to have to recycle and relearn the job every five years and, thus, we need continuing education to be more than a slogan, but to be a reality. That will require flexible institutions at a time when most of the educational institutions of the developing world have certainly been the most ossified and least susceptible to change.

We have to change the content of the schooling, the quality and quantity – not just the quantity – to incorporate the values of human rights, equity and cultural diversity that will bring about the culture of peace and real respect to the other, so we don’t have the civil wars we’ve been witnessing from Yugoslavia to Rwanda and so on.

Because they’re the mediators of the scientific revolution, the universities in the developing world are going to have to change their role to the benefit of the poor.

And the mobilization of science is going to be a big challenge, because the practice of science is going to be very big. The issue is: what is science being used for? Is it to increase the pace at which the pig farmers can have better animals to bring to market, or is it going to be concerned about the marginalized person; about things like food security for starving children?

Is it going to be concerned for the global commons and how to harness science for the benefit of the environment for future generations?

For us, therefore, the scientific revolution we’re witnessing must find a way of being harnessed both for the poor and for the environment. And that is not going to happen by itself if it is left just to the commercial incentives. We need to balance the two and create a good partnership between the private sector and the public sector.

The culture that will make this possible, because science operates within a culture and it impacts on the culture, will be one where we have to honour the past, celebrate the present and design the future.

And that’s a culture which means there is a cultural continuity between societies, a cultural continuity that enables us to find our roots in the past. We all have our cultural roots that we take pride in, but we must also be able to celebrate the diversity of our cultures in the world because that’s a rich and precious treasure. You in Canada are doing a lot in this area.

But the multiplicity and diversity of culture is a valuable one. But we should not be afraid of being bold to create the new, but for many people the culture of today is marked by just an explosion of images that are coming of their TV screens to the point where they feel invaded in their own areas and surprisingly they feel also very belittled by forces that are bigger and alien to them. People feel alone, they’re belittled and alienated.

Yet, the times are exhilarating and the question is: why can’t we turn this around and recognize that one of the ways of extending and using this new technology of communication and imagery is in fact to remind us of our common humanity and to bring forward that fundamental element of caring for the other?

It is possible. All of that is possible and I have no doubt that governance can be promoted.

What we’re going to need is new thinking in the sense that we’re going to design new models, because the new science and the new technology require new models of partnership and new models of openness. It’s not impossible, but it’s something which we’ll have to do.

I’m very encouraged by the words of Margaret Mead, who said:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I’m convinced that meetings such as this create that kind of a coalition of the caring; caring to create a better world for our children.

We need to do this in order to remember the forgotten – the 1.4 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day – and of the 800 million people who still go hungry.

We have to do it also to change the status of women, who are carrying the inequities of the current status quo.

And we have to do it as a responsibility to our children and the future generations for whom, in fact, we are stewards of this Earth; this Earth that we did not inherit from our parents, but that we borrowed from our children.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference