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Assessing Nehru's legacy

Published by Newsweek on 1999-01-01

Exactly 35 years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru suffered a stroke and died shortly thereafter at the age of 74, a man whose spirit had been shattered by the political venality and deepening economic decay around him. India's great founding father--some would say the father, too, of the post-colonial world of emerging nations--had struggled in the twilight of his extraordinary life with some unsettling questions: How was it that his nation, which seized independence from the British amid exuberant hopes of eradicating poverty for its teeming millions, now found itself in a depressing economic downslide? Why was the private sector conspicuously lugubrious about its commitment to social development? Why weren't global aid institutions able to accelerate growth in what was then known as le tiers monde, the third world? And whatever happened to the concept of good governance in so many poor countries?

Nehru's demise occurred well before the World Economic Forum was conceived in the Alpine precincts of Europe. But as the brahmins of high finance, politics and diplomacy gather this week in the Swiss resort of Davos for their annual seance of convivial cerebration, they might do well to reflect on the questions that troubled Nehru more than a generation ago. The Asian titan lived at a time when the high adventure of nation-building was just beginning for many of the developing world's 127 nations. Now the perforated economies of those states threaten the wellbeing of the industrialized countries--those very donors who had invested so much of their foreign aid in what has largely turned out to be the chimera of sustainable development.

The Davos participants will most certainly debate the financial nuances of the contemporary phenomenon of globalization, that fledgling notion that free markets, blended with democratization, can translate into sustainable human development. Of course, globalization has hardly produced tidy results; what Nehru called the "disease of despair of the havenots" is afflicting the developing world in a terrifying way. Will Davos offer reasonable--not rhetorical--solutions for the dilemma of development?

The prospects aren't encouraging: World population is growing at the rate of 100 million annually--which means that our planet carries twice the number of people since the day Nehru died. Donor-dollars are drying up, and consequently worthy aid programs such as family planning are languishing: in scores of poor countries, needy women and men do not have access to contraceptives--because local health clinics are no longer being supplied by traditional overseas donors. The global cohort of those living in "absolute poverty"--meaning those earning the equivalent of barely a dollar a day--has reached the frightening figure of 2 billion- that's a third of the world's population. There's been scattered progress in protecting the global environment, but industrial pollution in most developing nations is at an all-time high. So are infant-mortality rates in an unacceptably large number of countries; these rates are generally a very reliable indicator of a nation's economic and social health.

Because Davos has become a metaphor for awesome influence in global policymaking, this year's participants have a unique opportunity to help despairing nations reverse their course of decline and disintegration. Here are some steps they should consider:

_ Suggest strong leaders for multilateral organizations. Top positions at several international agencies are up for grabs, including the UN Development Programme (which disburses a billion dollars annually in technical aid), Unicef, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Programme. The records of many of these organizations have been, at best, spotty. But because these agencies are involved closely in the daily drama of development in a majority of the world's nations, their leaders can be pivotal in promoting progress. Perhaps the business tycoons assembled at Davos can loan top lieutenants to these international agencies in order to energize them.

_ Promote responsible environmentalism. Many eco-activists seem disgruntled at being "shut out" of Davos, and some are planning to demonstrate against the industrialists who have been invited. But confrontationalism isn't going to save the planet; cooperation will. Corporate leaders need to reach out meaningfully to grassroots activists and construct projects that preserve natural resources but also generate jobs, especially in cottage industries that are peppered across developing societies.

_ Encourage domestic investment in development projects. It is unrealistic to assume that foreign aid from the world's 29 wealthiest nations--the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the so-called rich man's club--is going to go up again. (Last year, the figure dipped to $5 billion, $5 billion less than in 1997.) Why not create incentives--such as tax holidays--for indigenous capitalists in developing nations to invest in development projects? Nations such as Costa Rica, Bangladesh, Uganda and Barbados have successfully persuaded wealthy local businessmen to launch micro-credit programs that benefit incipient entrepreneurs. Health-care is another field in which there's far too little indigenous involvement by local industrialists of the developing world.

_ Develop new channels of opportunity for multinationals. While the principles of good business may mitigate against pouring fresh capital into tottering states, it is an entirely different matter when it comes to investing in socially responsible economic projects. In India, for example, a Delhi-based company uses solar energy to turn out products--a business that has created hundreds of thousands of job. It's time to get the giants of global industry into such fields as construction of affordable housing; contraceptive manufacturing on location in poor countries; building transportation networks in emerging economies. Their partners could be small businessmen, even nongovernmental organizations, who yearn for an association with those with foreign knowhow and capital. And since globalization means that doors to all sorts of investment are opening wider in previously skittish developing countries, now's the time for the moneymen of New York, London, Zurich, Tokyo and Frankfurt to go forth and help developing country constituencies to become beneficiaries of a "Compassionate Globalization."

Will Davos spawn this "Compassionate Globalization," one that's predicated on economic equality and not serfdom? Listen to Jawaharlal Nehru again, socialist though he was (albeit Cambridge educated): "Equality should mean an understanding of the modern world wherein real progress and advancement, whether national or international, have become very much a joint affair, and a backward group pulls back others. Therefore not only must equal opportunities be given to all, but special opportunities for educational, economic and cultural growth must be given to backward groups so as to enable them to catch up to those who are ahead of them. If the spirit of the age demands equality, it must necessarily also demand an economic system which fits in with it and encourages it."

Was Nehru talking about compassionate globalization? Sure sounds like it- decades before even the word "globalization" careened into our consciousness--and our lexicon.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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