As the cuts bite, why bother with the global South?

'Be more human'

'We need to be a little more human' and internationalize our minds. Scooter Lowrimore under a Creative Commons Licence

The twentieth century saw great strides for internationalism. Colonialism became history faster than the colonists ever imagined, and a communications revolution made real the concept of a global village. For the first time, we saw in real time the conditions in which billions of our brothers and sisters around the world sought to make the best of their lives.

Perhaps most powerfully of all, the evil of racism, for so long a guiding instinct of foreign and domestic policy, came to be considered entirely unacceptable in almost all fora, even if it remains a subtle demon in the souls of almost all of us.

This is progress, human progress, which we are right to celebrate.

But today, in 2013, we are faced with a serious risk that rather being cemented in our collective psyche, an internationalist vision will begin to be eroded. The wealthy countries of the last century are facing serious and long-term economic difficulties as poorer countries compete for jobs and investment. The ease with which largesse was promised from the bubble of growth, has been replaced by nagging stinginess. Rather than facing together the challenges of fairer shares in a resource-constrained world, powerful voices call on us to turn inwards. This is not necessarily the pernicious nationalism of yesteryear, (although that may be a concern in some European countries) but a reinvigoration of the nation-centrism which has always dominated international relations.

The policies required to set the world on a sustainable and more equal path will be debated. But in my view the most important barriers remain in our minds. While heeding the rhetoric of international solidarity, we remain trapped in a state-centric philosophy incoherent with the reality of the world we inhabit and seek to improve.

Almost all political discussions are framed in terms of the national interest. Internationalist perspectives are an after-thought at best. It is considered absurd and embarrassing to suggest that things should be otherwise. And while this is understandable given the constituencies to which politicians must refer, it remains the major roadblock to decisions being made for the good of all.

We continue to elaborate arguments about inequality and justice based on geography, despite the obvious logical inconsistencies with our professed world views. Since 2007, for example, Britons have objected to bankers’ bonuses with reference to the hardships being faced nationally – joblessness and service cuts. But why does poverty 10 miles away matter more than poverty 1,000 or 10,000 miles away? If Zambia was located across the English Channel instead of France, how long would the British tolerate its extreme levels of poverty?

We know the answers to those questions, having posed them a thousand times. But we are miles away from a popular political discourse that follows them to their logical conclusion.

For example, the British Labour party criticizes the Conservatives for entrenching wealth in the hands of the few. But does Labour genuinely seek to spread the wealth of Britain with the rest of the world? Or is it also engaged in entrenching advantage? To suggest that living standards can no longer rise because of equality and sustainability considerations would be considered political suicide. Instead we hear the typical cross-party rhetoric of ‘competing in a world economy’.

Western political leaders have long professed a desire to see the poorer countries of the world catch up with western living standards, on the basis of human solidarity and also, supposedly, the idea that there would be greater trading opportunities. But now that they are finally doing so, the west seems to be caught off-guard, treating immensely poor countries like India as competitors. Do we want to bring those IT jobs back, causing unemployment in one of the world’s poorest countries? Or should we be boldly persuading our fellows that we already have it too good, and that it is time for radical redistribution of opportunities.

The call of one campaign group to ‘globalize resistance’ was always an exceptionally sensible one. It may have taken the banking crisis to jolt Westerners into realizing that. Only a truly international political platform has any kind of chance in a world of globalized capital in which the 0.001 per cent wield more power than ever. As a colleague at a major NGO told me thoughtfully, the development sector used to be more progressive than the western public, but may now be lagging behind peoples’ desire for structural change in the face of absurd inequalities.

In short, internationalism may be more palatable and persuasive than ever, just as it also faces one of its sternest tests.

The discussions about a post-2015 UN framework offer a chance to boost international cooperation – and to internationalize our minds.  

I haven’t always agreed with Bob Geldof but I liked this quote from a speech earlier this month, 'We need to be a little more human. Less Irish, less British, less Cameroonian, less South African, less Russian, less Chinese and more human.’

That is the challenge. We hope that this blog series will offer some clues about how to achieve this greatest of aspirations. The first step, as always, is to listen. To develop empathy with people and peoples very different and often distant. The second step, is to allow our learning to radicalize policies, and not to be put off by the daunting obstacles. These changes will not happen over night. But while the internationalist vision will be viewed as impossible and unrealistic, it is in fact the only rational response to the world as we now experience it.

Perhaps internationalists will never win outright. But we can constantly mitigate the dangers of nationalism and coax the gradual birth of a genuinely humane humanity. It may sound radical now, and hard to see how to put into action, but concern for inequality across borders should be the basis of 21st century political ethics.

The Internationalists blogging series has been timed to mark NI's 40th anniversary. Read the other blogs exploring perspectives on development and global solidarity.