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The Major Challenges of Today: What Answers to Give in the Lebret Dynamic?

By Yves Berthelot

Yves Berthelot identifies the major challenges currently arising in a globalized world and to which we must contribute to bring answers: new balances of power, hunger, the environment, respect of human rights. He proposes constructed, coherent and concrete alternatives.


The End of Western Domination

2010 is a transitional year where the end of Western domination is clearly discernible.

The swing takes place at the economic level (getting out of the crises of Latin America, Africa and especially Asia is more successful than that of Europe or the United States), but also at the political level. The failure of Copenhagen as a symbolic point of view, it was not possible to arrive at a consensus on what the OECD countries deemed essential in exchange for promises of aid to developing countries. Ever more important, Brazil and Turkey signed, in early 2010, an agreement on the exchange process of nuclear fuel with Iran, against the will of the United States and the European Union. Fear of America is reducing; China asserts itself economically and politically as a dominant player.

The first consequence of this swing is a hegemonic world dominated by the United States following a multipolar world in which one must rethink governance. The establishment of a world government is neither a realistic utopia, as national governments are all hostile, nor a desirable objective as peoples fear a too distant bureaucracy. The alternative is to strengthen and make more coherent all existing international institutions, public institutions like the UN family (which comprises the World Bank and the IMF), WTO or the Bank for International Settlements and private institutions like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). These general, sectoral, or regional authorities define principals, norms and agreements that are recognized throughout the world. One talks to them about soft law, because, if there is an International Court of Justice and Special Tribunals, arbitration proceedings and procedures following taken commitments, these institutions do not have the means to compel governments to apply the same even if they ratified them.

The second consequence is that one must learn to negotiate. Up to the end of the previous century, the positions of industrialized countries were defined in the OECD and in the group of 77 for countries of the Third World. Even if these latter succeeded in imposing their views because of their number, they depended on the implementation of decisions taken with good will by industrialized countries. Henceforth, the group of 77 is no longer homogeneous in face of the West and the economic and political interests of its members are diverging. On their side, Westerners are no longer willing to impose their ideas in exchange for promises of aid often not kept. One and all will learn to design together solutions to world problems.

A third consequence will be perhaps an assertion of regional specificities and of the principle of subsidiary. In the case of the UN, the standards that it adopts and many of the policies that it recommends are global, and yet many issues are of a regional character and should be resolved at this level. The UN Regional Commissions should have more political weight in the manner of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC) and technical weight in the manner of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Civil society
Organizations of civil society have also to face real challenges of governance and behaviour. Western organizations, previously holders of the money and knowledge, struggle to imagine another role within international solidarity. Civil society is growing and must be able to assume responsibilities. It is an area of promising dialogue and cooperation.

The economic system

The social market economy, in force in Western Europe in the years from 1950-1970, allowed growth and reduced inequalities and social progress. The neoliberal economy, which now prevails throughout the world, is more concerned with the return on capital than the income distribution; it certainly assured periods of strong growth but it also led to a series of crises due to deregulations, withdrawal of the State and speculation. These crises increased inequalities and destroyed considerable riches. Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, combines violence against peoples in dictatorships of all sorts with the implementation of ultraliberalism.

The last crisis shook the financial system that had wanted to free itself from many prudential rules and that had invented new risk tools in case of insufficient funds. The publics or private supervisory bodies (credit rating agencies), either because they did not control the new tools or that their short-term interests pushed them there, have not played their role. Nations came under the aid of bankruptcy banks and insurances to restore credit, if necessary to the functioning of all economies (it comes to buying time that separates the sale from the payment or the investment from the production that it permits). These same governments announced new rules and new controls that would bear more on the level of reserves in relation to taken risks than on the limitation of risky financial tools, the banks having been restored to health fighting vigorously against all limits for their initiatives.

More generally, the current economic system is confronted by three questions and answers that will affect society as an entire whole:

  • Economic liberalism and political liberties seem to weaken former industrialized countries while pursuit of profit and interventions of the State without political liberties seems to succeed in so-called emerging countries, particularly in China. What will be the future mode of economic regulation?
  • The driving force of the economy stays in demand: it is necessary to always create more than is needed. And yet the effects on the environment are negative (pressure on raw materials, pollution, access to water, competition in the use of space, etc.). Is one going towards another respectful growth of the environment or towards a decline of which it is necessary to recognize that it attracts hardly any support?
  • In the West, the standard of living is much higher than in the beginning of the 20th century. However, the feeling of dissatisfaction is still as large, for each compares what he has with that of others. What consequence to pull from this to change the modes of consumption?

Role of civil society
It seems difficult to change the model as long as it is not proven that one can live happily differently. It is a role that NGOs can play: introduce alternative experiences. There are in fact, here and there, alternative models. It is advisable to attentively study those who survive and overcome the risk of appropriation of power by the “small heads.” AREDS offers us a model: to respond to the needs expressed by the community; to establish mechanisms for collective decision-making.

Hunger

In 50 years, the world population rose from 3 to 6.7 billion people. It had been possible to feed the growth of the population, which in itself is remarkable, but there are still a billion men, women and children who are suffering from chronic hunger and a billion malnourished. Furthermore, 75% of those who are suffering from hunger are from rural areas. Why?

The liberalization of trade of agricultural products, under the pressure of the WTO, the World Bank and exporter countries from the North and South, place local production in competition with cheap imported products. The prices of the world market are low because of they correspond to the costs of production of countries most favoured by the climate and soils, (for example New Zealand for milk), prices that Europe and the United States can take thanks to the exportation or production subsidies. To keep the example of milk, the breeders of Mali or of Mongolia, two major breeding countries, can not compete against exported European powdered milk and that reconstituted the markets of Bamako or Ulan Bator.

The residents of the cities benefited from this situation. However, the hunger riots, in 2008, erupted in the urban zones. This brought to light the growing dependence of the urban population’s food industry on imported products. A hazardous climate, wrong choice in large exploitations, speculation of intermediaries, and price of basic foods are taking off in the world market. With growing urbanization, fluctuations of prices of the world market risk being amplified and becoming more frequent.

The second issue is that of access to land while the competition grows for both the use of land between cities, infrastructures, mines and industries and for the propriety (or user rights) of land among smallholders, agro-industrial businesses, countries or sovereign wealth funds that buy land to produce and export. It is possible and desirable to feed the world, to assure the conservation of the social fabric and to preserve the environment, to support a local familial agriculture. It is necessary that agricultural research, today massively turned towards industrial agriculture, is concerned with developing techniques and the plant varieties allowing high yields without the provision of chemical inputs and with a minimum of water. It is necessary to also strengthen the rural and urban producer-consumer connections. Examples exist that introduce the analysis of recognizing that the share of food in families’ budgets is without doubt going to increase.

Civil society

NGOs to enquire and impress upon the issues and initiatives, to plead for food sovereignty and to strengthen farming associations where they are weak so that they can have talks with political authorities.

The Environment

In recent years, the debate on the environment is centered on global warming because of the commitment of the Copenhagen Conference at the end of 2009 while issues of the energy waste, rarity of certain minerals and various forms of pollution worsen.

Contrarily to that what some feared, the fight for the environment is not an obstacle to economic activity, but a potential motor: the recycling industry or investments for saving energy in transport and heating are going to expand under the influence of regulations and necessity.

Civil society

The role of civil society is here fundamental to:

  • explain the issues and put pressure on governments
  • explore models of consumption not founded on greed but on a chosen austerity. This change of behaviour can not be achieved without the conversion of individuals who must give priority to “being more” rather than “having more.”

Human Rights

Since the end of the Second World War, there is a admirable body of law relating to human rights: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, without doubt the most beautiful text of the UN, agrees on economic, social and cultural rights, and that of civil and political rights, of many conventions relating to women, children, prisoners, refugees, minorities, absolute prohibition of torture and inhumane treatment or degradation, etc. This set is fastened to the rights of peoples; except in the case of minorities, it is not fastened to societies or communities.

The construction of human rights is weakened by a relativism: human rights? Yes, but cultures must be respected; yes, but development first; yes, but terrorism must be defeated. The fact that countries the most advanced in promoting human rights have deliberately resorted to torture after September 11, 2001 to fight against terrorism, considerably harmful to the respect of rights. In the name of development, economic, social and cultural rights of the most poor are overridden: expulsion of farmers from their land, of residents from their homes without compensation. Those who protest are arrested, tortured, even murdered: one witnesses a criminalization of social protest, notably when it is a threat of the interests of large companies, and witness a deterioration of the condition of the defenders of human rights.

The deterioration of the means of protection of human rights can also be seen in international bodies: NGOs see their talk time reduced by the UN; special reporters must now be invited by their own countries to investigate situations of violation ofrights … This evolution results from the pressure of authoritarian governments that contest the legitimacy of human rights under the pretext that they had been largely promoted by Western countries and that takes the argument of consecutive diversions of September 11, 2001. The recent reform, transforming the Commission into the “Human Rights Council,” had to fight against this weakening of means of protecting human rights but it has, in fact, led to the reverse.

Civil society

NGOs have several roles to play: to inform people of their rights, supporting them in their appeal for justice to respect them both at a national level and in international levels; to not separate rights of duties and responsibilities; to contribute to the reflection on the collective dimension of rights, while ensuring to not weaken the modes that help individuals or groups to get out of fear, of domination.

Conclusion

The evoked problems are far from wearing out the challenges that confront governments, international institutions and actors of civil society. Today, these challenges are more and more interdependent; good answers to one will lead to progress in solving the others. As the Lebret International Network, we have neither the vocation nor the possibility to provide comprehensive answers. Our commitment to social change consists of making known the expertise of grassroots actors, to take their experiences and questions to each pose to decision-makers and to propose policies and susceptible behaviours to reach an integral and untied human development.


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