Posts Tagged ‘Globalization’

For limited time only in the Middle East

For limited time only in the Middle East (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This film came out in 2010 and asks one question: Why are today’s youth apparently so apathetic?

This is a good question. People today have more access than ever before to information about what is going on in the rest of the world, including the issue of people making their household goods in slave-like conditions. Why aren’t they angrier about it?

The film takes a US-centric, or at least First World-centric view of the question, using the War in Iraq as its main example, and how there wasn’t any serious organised opposition to it, however it’s more general than that. The film-makers believe today’s youth are unmotivated to get up and do much about any of the world’s ills.

It identifies two major reasons:

The first is, or was, Television which today includes any form of passive media consumption in which marketing messages are pushed at us.

So that’s not just broadcast Television but also time-wasters such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the devices on which they come to us: computer, tablet and smartphone.

The film puts the case that these forms of media all deaden our sense of outrage or motivation to effect change. For a start, they present the news in a sanitised manner. The film briefly makes this point by showing the real death of one single person in Iraq. It takes less than a second of screen time but it was a very shocking and upsetting image. You just don’t get that on TV. Then there’s the fact that the internet gives us access to *all* the world’s problems, which can be overwhelming and make any attempt to create a positive impact seem hopeless.

One interviewee commented that the mass media also keeps us in the ‘now’, whereas schooling at least gives young people a sense of history and context. But teaching, as one teacher admits in exasperation, is no match for all the colour and movement of the consumer society.

(I wonder how this would have been nuanced had the film been made just one year later, in 2011. It would be impossible to say nothing about the use of social media in the Arab Spring)

Anyway schooling brings us to the second major cause, which is Debt. Today’s bright young things get themselves into college and rack up $100,000 or more of student loan debt. Or they buy a house and sign on for a mortgage. Their options to choose something meaningful to them as a career are severely hampered thereafter. NGOs don’t pay enough. Also, the increasing demands of work make it very difficult to find the time to be involved in civic activities.

The film ends on an upbeat note; the message is, Don’t let people talk you out of trying. How true. It’s so easy to be cynical about people’s good intentions, but sometimes people with good intentions succeed in making the world better. When’s the last time cynicism did that?

Trailer for the film:

Lobster Trap

Lobster Trap (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve started reading Conor Woodman’s recent book, Unfair Trade. Once finished, I’ll post a full review, however it’s already given me some food for thought.

In the first chapter, Conor explains the perils of lobster diving as practised near Bilwi, Nicaragua. The locals dive many times per day in total ignorance of the risk brought about by such frequent decompressions.

Lobster trapping would be a less hazardous alternative but for the locals, the cost of entry is out of their league (about $1,500: 50 traps at $25-30 a piece).

The hapless divers tried to strike to improve their conditions but their customer, an intermediary food processing company, stared them down. The only other lever that can be pulled are the CSR commitments of the companies at the other end of the supply chain, such as Red Lobster restaurants. Even assuming that a ban on dive-caught lobster is helpful, Conor quickly illustrates how it is impossible to know the origin of any particular lobster and no one has set up any serious form of monitoring.

Just when it seemed like a lost cause, enter microfinance.

Yes it will certainly be better if, in the medium-term, the divers can secure some enforceable right to collective bargaining however if you want to assist people get out of the poverty trap you can do so today by making a loan through Grameen FoundationKiva or a similar organisation. It makes the difference between the likes of Conor’s guide, Wally, having some kind of self-determination and being stuck in a vicious cycle of low wages and poor equipment.

The only criticism I’ve heard of microlending is one study which found that people who received funds easily were less inclined to take care of it. I’m not convinced that this is a widespread issue though.

You won’t see the labour movement promoting this as a solution, which is fair enough since collective bargaining would give the Miskitos the leverage to improve their lot on a widespread basis. However you have to be realistic about how attainable that is in Nicaragua in its present state of economic development. In the meantime, concerned individuals can at least “do something” to give real assistance.

Related posts:

Imagine a world where leaders worried foremost not about GDP figures, inflation and interest rates, but rather about actual wellbeing: that citizens live healthy, fulfilled lives. Imagine if we had a means of measuring that instead. It’s too easy, unfortunately, to be prosperous and still miserable.

Opinions on this diverge pretty widely:

  • Some argue that, once you reach an income that can meet your basic needs (say $50,000) more money isn’t going to make you much happier.
  • Others point to studies that show that happiness will increase with increased income but the law of diminishing returns applies: a $20,000 pay increase increases the happiness of a person earning $250,000 a lot less than it does a person earning $50,000 per year.
  • Finally, there have been studies warning that obsession with material progress will actually come at the cost of happiness and wellbeing.

It looks like the third view is having its moment. France, Canada and the UK have all announced that they will start measuring national wellbeing by means other than GDP. A vision of the future, I wonder?

The United Nations has long used a rough quality of life index called the Human Development Index though it gets nothing like the attention that Gross Domestic Product does. There are also niche providers of organisation-level Quality of Life surveys, such as UK-based (QoWL). Melcrum Consulting publishes another. (Interestingly, the countries and cities consistently at the top of these rankings are always Scandanavian, Australasian and Swiss.)

Two observations:

  1. A quality of life index provides a more meaningful insight into the degree to which people in developing nations are not living the life they would like to. I am suspicious of dollar comparisons since they do not take account of difference in purchasing power parity or (more to the point) different expectations of what constitutes the good life.
  2. These issues are interconnected. People in the developed world stockpile needless commodities in their efforts to keep up with the Joneses. This produces the demand to make ever more commodities, sucking more and more people into the low-cost manufacturing sector. I often think of the statistic that China manufactures 95 billion ballpoint pens a year – one a month for every man, woman a child on the planet. Is that ridiculous enough yet? Maybe our priorities do need realigning.

Vested interests push the ‘spend, spend, spend’ message so tenaciously that political leaders tend to assume it’s just normal. It’s pretty courageous of the governments mentioned above to have taken this step.

Below: Infographic of a Quality of Life survey specific to Europe

uSwitch Quality of Life infographic

Further reading:

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Trevor Long, Taken by Trevor Long September 21...

Image via Wikipedia

Events of the last week have brought something home to me: it is no wonder that unions remain national in scope. Whereas transnational corporations are ubiquitous, there are only a handful of genuinely transnational unions (i.e. not counting those with coverage of both the USA and Canada). Even the ambitious Service Employees International Union (SEIU) couldn’t break into overseas markets.

In a world where corporations have highly disciplined unanimity of purpose worldwide, workers have only the ten umbrella global union federations to co-ordinate cross-border campaigns. These are very loosely bound, barely more than forums really. Occasionally they have had successful campaigns where the interests of the workers in all nations are in alignment, e.g. the IUF Nestle campaign, but the central offices (generally located near the ILO in Geneva) have considerably less influence than the national affiliates.

I can see cross-border organising only getting harder in the near future, and here are two recent examples to show why:

  • The Australian airline Qantas is currently embroiled in an epic dispute with three unions representing the ground staff, engineers and pilots. At the heart of the dispute is Qantas’ plan to employ more of its staff overseas.
  • At the same time, the iconic Italian car manufacturer Fiat is threatening to decamp from Italy because skilled workers in nearby Poland will work for €8 per hour rather than €28 per hour.

This offshoring debate isn’t news, but this time around there is a critical difference. It was easy in 1991 and 1992, during the NAFTA debate, to explain that the economy can create new jobs to replace those that move away. In 2011 and 2012 it is a different story. Job security has risen up the scale of developed world workers’ concerns.

In this climate, how on earth can the workers of countries in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia be expected to campaign for those in other countries? It would be okay if their own prosperity was still rising or at least stable, but the generosity of spirit is understandably less when they see their own entitlements under threat – and especially so when ‘offshore workers’ are going to benefit in their stead.

I saw an isolated exception last week when the American United Steel Workers union publicly castigated Freeport-McRohan over the ongoing strike at the Grasberg Mine in Indonesia.

I don’t see a way out of this. The workers of the developing world are going to have to do it on their own. Either that of the global union federations need to alter the way they operate, away from a consensus model and more towards a truly federal model, including a division of powers. Hard to imagine it happening though.

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More on the Qantas dispute
MDG pictograms

The Millennium Development Goals

One year ago, wearing another hat, I attended the UN’s ‘Advance Global Health – Achieve the MDGs’ conference in Melbourne.

The forum is held annually – it is a means by which the UN takes the global pulse to see what issues it should focus on.

The conference was huge by Australian standards, with 1,500 delegates in attendance, most of them representing NGOs from around the world, delivering services to reduce infant mortality, improve maternal health, improve schooling, and so on. The UN wanted to hear how things are progressing.

Generally the news is good, and in some countries it is exceptionally good. The MDG (Millenium Development Goal) benchmarks won’t all be reached by 2015, but the world is definitely trending in the right direction. One dramatic example: The number of people living on $1.25 a day or less in Vietnam fell from 64% to just 22% in thirteen years.

Clearly there is a place for well-resourced development organisations, but they have to know when to step back, too. My abiding memory of the conference was Elena Jeffreys of the Scarlet Alliance. She drew attention to the fact that there can sometimes be a cluttered NGO ‘marketplace’ and the better-known, better-resourced organisations can suck all the oxygen out of it – taking up the media and funding opportunities. The problem, she said, is that they are often self-appointed, yet their voices are being heard at the expense of the more representative but less savvy local organisations. The largest union in Cambodia is the home-grown Women’s Network for Unity. If you’ve ever heard of it, you have done well. There are over 1,000 NGOs working in Cambodia and it is always easier to get media comment from native English speakers.

Ms Jeffreys goes further than that and suggests that rich-world NGOs will often come in and start lobbying in a fashion that is actually counterproductive to existing local efforts. She summed up:

Give us our rights; we can do the rest.

Dr. Claudio Schuftan of the People’s Health Movement echoed her sentiments. He said people in developing nations should not be seen as mere beneficiaries. “Rather,” he said,

we are mobilising rights holders to make their own claims.

This message could be challenging for the relief and development industry. At some level they generally see their organisations as needing to persist indefinitely into the future. Their work will remain necessary, but it will be capable of being done by local organisations and that is infinitely more desirable than having rich outsiders swoop in to resolve problems.

The adjustment could be difficult. It’s exciting and pleasant-sounding to expand to a new country; harder to announce that you are withdrawing from one. Almost sounds like a failure. Yet that is what needs to be done, sooner or later.

The way of the future can be seen in countries such as Chile and Malaysia, which have reached a medium level of wealth per capita and have fewer outside relief agencies operating there. Their neighbours Indonesia and Peru, however, retain a mindset that outsiders should come in and help. We are right at the point where many countries are switching from the latter to the former mentality.

Making Progress on the MDGs

See which countries have made the most progress by clicking on the map above. Image by Gates Foundation via Flickr

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More from the blogosphere (no endorsement implied):


This video formed part of the opening of last year’s conference

There are ten international union confederations, each of them focusing on a particular economic sector. UNI Global Union comprises 900 national service-sector unions, representing over 20 million workers.

UNI deals with workplace relations matters at the United Nations level hence it is headquartered near the International Labour Organization offices in Switzerland.

UNI sees the way forward as negotiating agreements with multi-national companies. It’s the same principle seen on the shop floor, but taken to the next level: A united workforce gets a better outcome in negotiations than one individual. It stands to reason that a united global workforce will get a better result than a local effort.

UNI is spearheading a push for something called Global Framework Agreements. These are commitments made by multi-national companies that they will observe certain minimum standards in all the countries that they operate, including:

·     Recognising the right to bargain collectively

·     Recognising the right to join a union

·     Not discriminating in employment

·     Observing decent working conditions

These agreements do not set wages; those are negotiated at the national or local level.

By early 2010, 36 Global Framework Agreements had been signed with multinationals including Ikea and the Accor Hotels group. More are on the way. The beginning of things to come?

I really like this animated graph with commentary by Hans Rosling, showing 200 years of world economic development. More power to him for making economics interesting!

He consistently likes to show that the nations of the Global South are not so far behind as some in the North might think (although it must be said, Africa is trending the slowest). This is going to be a great century as poverty declines and living standards improve in the world’s largest nations.