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Mantra for the new millennium

Published by Newsweek on 1999-12-01

It's unlikely that business decisionmakers, society doyens and grassroots activists bone up much on Mohandas K. Gandhi these days--but perhaps they should. In an essay that the Indian political and spiritual leader wrote, Gandhi--the Mahatma--said: "Industrialism is going to be a curse for mankind. The world we must strive to build needs to be based on the concept of genuine social equality--in it, the prince and the peasant, the wealthy and the less well-off, the employer and the employee are on the same level. Economic progress cannot mean that few people charge ahead and more and more people are left behind."

In light of today's globalization and its consequences, Gandhi was remarkably prescient--even though he was referring to his time of infant industrialization more than a hundred years ago. Globalization may have swaddled the industrialized societies in prosperity, but there are more poor people now than ever before--a third of the global population of 6 billion have a per capita income of less than the equivalent of a dollar a day, according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. Last week, in a sobering annual report card, it warned: "Economic euphoria may lead us to ignore trends that have the potential to reverse progress--from HIV/AIDS in Africa to falling water tables in India." Uneven economic growth has bludgeoned the environment in vast regions of the world, Worldwatch said, with resulting destabilization of climate, growing desertification, and shrivelling forests.

"Caught up in the growth of the Internet, we seem to have lost sight of the Earth's deteriorating health," Worldwatch's president, Lester R. Brown, said last week. "It would be a mistake to confuse the vibrancy of the virtual world with the increasingly troubled state of the real world."

It would also be a mistake to confuse confrontation with constructive criticism. Environmental deterioration and the concomitant fitful economic progress are eliciting loud protests from nongovernmental organizations. These NGOs are accelerating demonstrations decrying issues such as poverty, wherever businessmen and diplomats seem to gather these days. Ironically, many of these NGOS receive generous funding from the very businesses and governments they're agitating against, funding that's often offered in the na?ve hope that money can modulate militancy. In 1999, rich countries gave $40 billion to poor countries in foreign aid; governments and businesses gave at least that much to civil-society organizations for "grassroots" work.

That sort of work used to imply wading through fields to plant crops, or digging water wells in villages. But the NGO doctrine has been expanded to include colorful road shows. These days, protesters are emboldened by their success in Seattle not long ago, when they caused the ministerial meeting of the much-vilified World Trade Organization to crumble. There's a new cause around which NGOs of rich and poor countries alike are rallying--globalization, a concept that was arguably born at Davos several seasons ago when the Internet was still an incipient transformational phenomenon. Notwithstanding handouts from the overheeled, villains are still villains in the NGO handbook.

There is a succession of high-level meeting in store for early 2000, starting with Davos. In the spring, there are the international sessions at the United Nations and in Geneva marking the fifth anniversaries of the 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit and the Fourth World Conference on Women. There's the Millennium Summit at the UN later in the year, which is expected to attract more than 150 world leaders. There is a growing expectation that the privilegerati will fashion a new agenda for equitable development, economic and social.

What might such an action agenda consist of? Here are three ideas the international community would do well to consider:

_ Environment. Why not a new "implementation network" to ensure that the dozens of existing global treaties and protocols are adhered to by the very nations that agreed to them at long, costly conferences? Practically all multinational companies have enough environmental acumen and in-house expertise that could be made available to national governments. What's needed isn't more UN-type talkfests on climate change, for example, but specific steps by which localities, countries, and regions can mobilize current resources to lower pollution. That's where seconding of business personnel can be valuable--and profitable for the lenders, too, since healthier societies can more readily become stronger economies.

Infrastructure. Right now, being "wired" is largely an irrelevant notion in societies where even electricity is a luxury. Many developing-country governments have shown themselves incapable of coming up with workable plans for roads, power plants, and railroads. That's where resource-rich companies such as Swiss-Swedish Asea Brown Boveri, and Enron of the United States, can help. Why not empower local communities to join hands with resource-laden multinational corporations in drafting modest, culturally-sensitive infrastructure projects with relatively short gestation periods? Such projects can not only generate power but also jobs, lessening reliance on white elephant schemes favored by governments and supported by global bodies such as the World Bank.

_ Education. Developing nations, already hurt by dismaying conventional illiteracy, are now being additionally penalized by growing cyber-illiteracy. Here again, the mandarins of the Cyberage--Davos habitues such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steven Case of AOL, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Eric Schmidt of Novell--can help establish a "cyber-corps" to widen computer literacy in poor countries.

Mahatma Gandhi may not have anticipated globalization and the Internet, but India's founding father foresaw how quickly developing societies could be riven by the creation of two classes--the haves and the have-nots. He always said: "Think about tomorrow, but act for today." Not a bad mantra for the new millennium.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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