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close this bookThe Self and the Other: Sustainability and Self-Empowerment (WB, 1996, 76 p.)
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View the documentThe individual in today's global society Ismail Serageldin, World Bank

The individual in today's global society Ismail Serageldin, World Bank

The goal of this seminar is to explore the self and the other, the psyche and the bonds that make societies function. Your ideas and insights are of primary relevance to the World Bank because the Bank deals with people. Discourse within the Bank highlights the means of promoting the well being of people, mostly through economic growth and investments in education, health, and nutrition as well as roads and electricity. Clearly, the Bank's purpose is to establish their well-being, both as individuals and as groups.

It is sometimes too easy to airbrush away the misery of people by looking at aggregate statistics. When I make presentations, I use two projectors. On one side I show graphs and numbers, and on the other I show images and faces of people and groups to remind us all that there are real human beings behind the numbers.

But simply making such an assertion is not enough. If we believe that the benchmark for all our activities must be the individual, we must gain a better understanding of the problems that are unique to our times and that challenge us to think as never before about the link between individuals and groups- the idea of the self and the other. We must determine whether the changes taking place in today's world are empowering or disempowering people.

In his keynote address to the plenary session of this year's Third Annual ESD Conference, "Effective Financing of Environmentally Sustainable Development," U.S. Vice President Albert Gore said compellingly that it had taken humanity ten thousand generations to reach a population of 2 billion and that within one lifetime the global population is likely to reach 10 billion. If we think in these terms, it is clear that the population increase at such an amazing rate must be straining conventional processes of adaptation and evolution within societies. When this is also accompanied by globalization and rapid technological change, one must ask whether such processes can cope with the new realities.

We return therefore to what is happening to the individual in the new social order because, in my judgment, social orders can be assessed only in terms of how well they enable individuals to flourish. Political systems must reach to this benchmark in the sense that they must create the wise constraints that make people free. But in providing these constraints and protecting the public interest, these systems must not restrict liberties or obstruct the abilities of individuals to flourish.

This balancing act is best sought through process rather than product. There is no permanent or perfect solution for achieving the correct balance between a society's constraints and individual liberties, but there must be processes in place that enable people to participate in their systems and change them as their own perspectives change.

When such systems do not function well, social strife ensues. When that happens, we can talk of neither economic growth nor environmental conservation. A tragedy occurs, both individually and collectively.

The human being is a peculiar paradox. He or she must think alone, yet it is only through interaction with others that the individual can find meaning in such ideas as freedom. Freedom for someone sitting alone in a desert is meaningless. It is the ability to provide freedom for the individual in the midst of the collectivity that is the real challenge.

The heart of the discussion at this seminar is that individuals can exist only within the social order, and the social order can exist only to the extent that it respects the individual's right to act as an individual. The possibility of having bonds and shared values that hold a society together so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts or, conversely, of having a negative dynamic that leads to the disintegration of that society both can arise from the perception and interaction of the self and the other in that society.

All people are affected by images they have of themselves and of the world. In this regard I have used the metaphor of mirrors and windows and have said that the elite of a society-not just the academic or intellectual elite but those who shape opinion in the broadest sense, such as politicians, thinkers, and the media-have a responsibility to open windows through which people can see the world. These people may see the world as a threatening, terrible place in which they are being victimized, or they may see it as a place of opportunity. At the same time these elites have a responsibility to hold up mirrors in which people can see themselves. They may see themselves as oppressed individuals, as the instruments of a god on earth, or as the chosen people of manifest destiny for whom having control over a continent is a natural right.

It is the ability to provide freedom for the individual in the midst of the collectivity that is the real challenge - Ismail Serageldin

It is the combination of mirrors and windows that defines in our minds the boundaries of where the "us" stops and the "them" begins. The ability to expand these boundaries so that we can reach out to a common humanity is the challenge of our times - Ismail Serageldin

It is the combination of mirrors and windows that defines in our minds the boundaries of where the "us" stops and the "them" begins. The ability to expand these boundaries so that we can reach out to a common humanity is the challenge of our times because never before have people been confronted with the kind of globalization that is taking place today.

Yet this globalization is part of a paradox because a resurgence or assertion of specificity-whether ethnic, religious, or cultural-is present in almost all societies. The idea of "the melting pot" in the United States has been challenged since the 1960s and is being replaced by "the mosaic" perspective, a structure of a different sort.

The idea of the free movement of people in Europe finds boundaries the moment it involves countries beyond the European Union. In Germany following unification a major incentive for the massive flow of economic support from the Western to the Eastern part of the country was to keep people in the East rather than allow for their free movement to the West. So despite assertions to the contrary, and despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other covenants, actions indicate time and again that there is a continuing tendency to exclusion, an unwillingness to accept our common humanity. These actions can be subtle, or they can result in such extreme expressions of hate and violence as ethnic cleansing.

Globalization is driven by four forces:

1. Integration of the world's economies, especially in the financial and telecommunications markets. During a plenary session of the main environmentally sustainable development conference, we said that hard work over the next ten to twelve years could result in environmentally friendly and socially responsible investments in developing countries of the order of $500 billion. The figure sounded significant, but today capital markets carry out transactions equaling that amount every twelve hours. International private money flows could buy and sell the entire United States gross domestic product in less than a week. The degree of integration now existing in capital markets would have been impossible to imagine ten to twenty years ago.

The same situation holds in telecommunications. Distance is disappearing. We can now contact almost anyone anywhere, and soon telecommunications capabilities will be even more comprehensive. The result is that the political boundaries that divide sovereign nations have become as permeable to the ethereal commerce of ideas as they have to the commerce of money.

2. The universal drive to respect human rights. This drive has been significantly strengthened by the end of the Cold War. It is related to and has been a powerful impetus for the rise of feminism and Bender consciousness because an essential ingredient of any true concept of human rights is its application to all human beings. Today it extends to children's rights as well.

3. Increased global consciousness of the environmental movement. This movement has been pulling people together because it reminds all of us that we are downstream or downwind from one another, we all share the same ecosystem, and we are all stewards of Earth.

4. Emergence of an international civil society. Civil society is ably represented by the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations. Within CONGO civil society, which is not linked to the political boundaries within which its members operate, has built common bonds. The international civil society is atomized and disparate, but it exists. It is a vibrant, living movement that has become apparent most recently at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (September 4-15, 1995), the UN World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen (March 6-12, 1995), and the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, or Earth Summit) in Rio de Janeiro (June 314, 1992). We could say that this civil society came of age at UNCED, during which a people's forum, as opposed to the official conference forum, manifested a new reality and revealed the existence of common bonds.

Many of the seemingly unstoppable forces toward the globalization and homogenization of the world are extremely positive. They are creating links among human beings that will lead them to respond to the challenge that the late Bertrand Russell put forward. Russell said we would become true human beings not when we cared about what happened to our neighbor down the street but when we cared as much about the death of an unknown person in China as we did about the death of our own brother (in England). Dealing with the abstraction is the challenge.

Why then do we have a feeling of loss and doubt as never before? Why do we see numerous social pathologies, not only in societies that are going through difficult periods but also in some of the most well-endowed societies? This brings us to the increasing inequity among societies and within societies, a global phenomenon that is deeply troubling. This inequity is partly because of the transformation of the production modes on which we depend into methods that are creating a knowledge-based society, another unstoppable trend. As we continue to move toward a knowledge-based society, inequities will increase because knowledge cannot be easily controlled. Those who know how to access, acquire, and manipulate knowledge, and can afford the necessary education and equipment to do so, gain a tremendous advantage.

As a result of increasing inequities the richest 20 percent of the world's population is now sixty times as rich as the poorest 20 percent, a gap that has doubled since 1%0. Within each society the gap between the pay scales of, for example, computer programmers and lawyers on the one hand and carpenters on the other has grown. But the gap between the salaries of the best and worst computer programmers, or the best and worst lawyers, is far greater than the salary gap between the best and worst carpenters. These inequities are inherently structured, and government institutions, labor unions, chambers of commerce, and institutions of mediation are not suited to coping with them. This is a serious challenge.

As we continue to move toward a knowledge-based society, inequities will increase. Those who know how to access, acquire, and manipulate knowledge, and can afford the necessary education and equipment to do so, gain a tremendous advantage - Ismail Serageldin

The state has to rethink its role. It has become too large, distant, and bureaucratic to deal with its citizens as individuals, too small to cope with the forces of global markets end prices - Ismail Serageldin

Last year I had the honor of addressing the staff of the International Labour Organisation concerning the directions of global change. I challenged the supporters of the labor movement to think about the strategic choices that unions have made, which I believe have basically weakened, if not marginalized, unions in dealing with present and future problems.

First, are unions concerned with the need to increase the number of jobs, or are they focused on protecting the jobs of those who were already working? In almost every society labor unions have opted to protect the positions that are already filled. At a time when there is rising unemployment in many societies of the North and a young population in the South that is increasing and demanding entry into jobs, the labor unions no longer serve as the voice of those who want remunerated labor. In the 1920s and 1930s the labor movement was the progressive force of the production society. Today, however, it is incapable of dealing with the stiff, structural unemployment in Europe that is running into double digits and an increasing number of young people in the developing world who want to enter the work force.

Second, I asked about the labor unions' primary premise of establishing an equal wage for everyone within a certain activity. The very nature of the transformation I have described does not allow that model to work. There will never be a union of computer programmers because of the way their profession is structured. Therefore the goals of the current labor movement and its institutional approach need to be rethought.

The state, which in many cases has been the instrument of progressive change, also has to rethink its role. In many ways it has become both too large and too small. It has become too large, distant, and bureaucratic to deal with its citizens as individuals. The growth in population alone, which United States Vice President Gore so eloquently high lighted, will guarantee this. At the same time the state has become too small to cope with the forces of global markets and prices.

All of these institutions are incapable of dealing with the rising inequities among and within societies. Unless we can find new modes of thinking and new institutional structures to cope with these inequities, there is a very real danger that they will fray the implicit social contract that enables society's institutions to function and to create a framework within which people can feel at ease.

This is a profound challenge that is not being met. The situation is exacerbated by the individual's perception that people everywhere are losing confidence in the future and, as they face the unknown, they are uneasy and insecure. This is occurring not just in developing countries but for the first time even in the United States. None of the optimism that once placed unbounded confidence in technology exists. There is cynicism regarding the ability of governments to create better conditions.

Under such circumstances people tend to regress. If goals cannot be defined for the future, they live for the present. If the present is disconcerting, they fall back into the past and try to revive long-lost family values, blood ties, and ethnic heritage. To regress is to tighten the circles within which they feel secure the tribe, the clan, and the immediate nuclear family.

Developing societies are the crucible of global change and local assertiveness. The impact of the global changes on these societies is far more powerful than their impact on Europe, Japan, and the United States. Developing societies want to define themselves in terms that reflect the present and the future, and they want to retain links to their heritages without remaining captives of the past. But they are confronting the dominant culture of the West, especially that of the United States, whose media-the Cable News Network, movies, television series, and newspapers-permeate everything, blithely setting the global agenda-whether in world trade issues or consumer tastes in jeans and ice cream-totally insensitive to the tremendous impact they are having on small, developing societies, which feel buffeted by winds that are not of their own making and over which they have no control.

Many in the developing world fear this notion of Westernization that they see being imposed on them. Paradoxically, this is happening at a time when the West itself is unsure and worries about the "burning of the West." Everyone is afraid of everyone else. The perception of "the other" is a mythic fearsome creature rather than an ally and friend with whom we can build a better future.

These are significant problems. As we approach the third millennium, such institutions as the World Bank that want to deal with these problems must dearly go back to basics. This entails gaining a better understanding of the self and the other, beginning with the individual and working outward into society rather than examining aggregate statistics for entire nations.

Ultimately, the essence of development is how individuals function in social groupings to improve their welfare without harming the environment, their neighbors, or the opportunities of their children. It is how the self, more secure in its self knowledge, can constructively relate to the other to build better tomorrows. It is how such cultural constructs affect the processes of socioeconomic change and are affected by it.

It is particularly pertinent, therefore, that Afaf Mahfouz has organized this seminar to explore the important topic of the self and the other, and I am most grateful to her for having done so. I look forward to learning from you. ·

Developing societies are the crucibles of global change -Ismail Serageldin