Globalization & Sustainable Development: Constraints and Prospects for the South

This paper on Globalization, Sustainable Development and the South was presented at the TWN- G77 Roundtable in New York in April 1997. by Chakravarthi Raghavan

The 1980s came to be commonly described, after the event though, as a "lost decade" for Development.

But seven years into the 1990s, and a little under three years from the 21st century, it looks as if we are in danger of losing development altogether to "globalization" and "neo-liberal" economics - which is preached, but not practiced, in the centres where neo-mer cantilism is the reality lurking behind "free trade" slogan.

Globalization as a term and a concept is mainly used in economic contexts, though it encompasses other dimensions. But the term has come to be used so widely and loosely over the last couple of years, creating so much of confusion, that it needs to be demystified, separating the process from the efforts to use the term for normative and prescriptive behaviour. The process is presented in various picturesque terms, giving rise to arguments about whether it is inevitable (a Marxian deterministic view of materialistic history that neo-liberal economists have embraced) or stoppable. But its prescriptive norms are within the ken of politics, domestic and international political economy.


According to an OECD publication, the term "globalization" was first used, in 1985 (Theodre Levitt, "The Globalization of Markets") to characterize the vast changes that have taken place over the past two decades in the international economy - the rapid and pervasive diffusion around the world of production, consumption and investment and trade in goods, services, capital and technology.

However, globalization stands for much more than a description of world economic trends. Rather, this increasing economic interdependence between countries is also being used in a normative sense to prescribe a strategy of development based on a rapid integration with the world economy (Nayyar 1995). And neo-liberal economics - forced on the South and the former East by the Bretton Woods Institutions (BWIs) and the two-year old World Trade Organization (WTO), is pushing a version of this integration - integration through the instrumentality of the Transnational Corporations (TNCs).

Violation of UN Charter

In this process, the United Nations itself, in violation of the letter and spirit of the provisions in Chapters IX and X of the Charter, is being sidelined by the BWIs (the IMF and the World Bank) and the two-year old World Trade Organization. The UN and its specialized agencies are discouraged, if not stopped, from discharging their own responsibilities in economic areas, and being asked instead to deal with "soft" issues. Even so, these same institutions often have to clear up the mess being created by the economic policies pushed by the BWIs and the WTO.

It is perhaps worth noting that the UN Charter was negotiated and came into being after the Bretton Woods accords (creating the IMF and the World Bank). And the Charter makes clear that its provisions over-ride international accords both before the Charter and after. And to the extent that members of the WTO (who are also UN members) decided not to bring the WTO into any formal relationships with the UN, they have been acting in violation of their Charter obligations.

Under the guise of budget constraints and need to economize, and undertaking reforms to persuade the biggest debtor to live up to its Charter obligations, the UN and its institutions are being starved of funds, and the BWIs and their staff preach austerity and adjustment to the general public in developing countries and transition economies while continuing with their own high life styles, including gold- leaf panelled executive dining rooms and supersonic travel (by the IMF staff). The policies and policy prescriptions for developing countries from the BWIs (and the WTO), which come in a "one-size-fit-all" package, is increasing the numbers of the poor and the problems of poverty everywhere for the vast majority of the people, while a few become richer and richer (UNDP 1996).

In the 1980s, most of the developing world found itself in the grip of an external debt and payment crisis, falling commodity prices and earnings and setback to development.

At least in retrospect, many analysts have come to associate the events and problems that beset the South countries in the 1980s - and reversing the advances they were making in terms of economic growth and development - with the 1979 Volcker shock (when the US Federal Reserve under chairmanship of Paul Volcker raised US interest rates by several percentage points overnight), and the abrupt change of direction in macroeconomic policy stances in the industrialized world. While some of it was perhaps inevitable, the continuance of some of these policies including the overemphasis on defeating inflation, while disregarding other elements like employment and other social objectives, is imparting a deflationary bias to the world economy.

Structural Adjustment Programmes

As a consequence of the policy stances in the majors, and the conditionality policies of lending of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) - which became debt - collectors for the private banks - developing countries were forced to undertake structural adjustment programs under their tutelage. The result of the new policy stances, and the way in which many of their effects were reinforced by SAPs, was that most of the developing countries experienced falls in per capita incomes and living standards and saw rising poverty. And many of them even now have not recovered to the levels they enjoyed in the 1970s, and are nowhere near the growth rates needed to make a dent into the accumulated problem of unemployment, marginalization and poverty.

Those who escaped much of this ravage were a few countries of the Far East - where the governments undertook their own reforms, ignoring the policy advice of the BWIs and their therapies of getting the state out of the market, and followed instead a policy of the state and the market working together (Ha-Joon & Rowthorn 1995; UNCTAD 1996).

In the early part of the 1990s, in the runup to and at the Earth Summit of June 1992, "development" was replaced by "sustainable development" (which had many definitions and descriptions, but left the overall impression that it was something less than development), which not only co-existed but often seemed to be part of the dominant neo-liberalist dogma of mainstream economics.

And for a while, a brief while, until the 1994 Mexican peso crisis, it seemed to many that this neoliberalism provided an answer to the world's ills and would put the developing world back on the path of growth and sustained development.

Romantised view

The Mexican crisis, and its aftermath, removed illusions among the public, but not the protagonists of the neo-liberal theology, about neo-liberalism's (fundamentalist) promises of sacrifices now for benefits later.

The failures of central planning in the East, and the State roles in the South, have blinded mainstream economists and policy makers and elites in our countries, to the failures of the Market and liberalism or laissez faire economics of the past, and of neoliberalism now.

Much of the neo-liberal economics and policies to promote it are premised, and sold to governments and the public, on a romanticized view of the history of liberalism and laissez faire of the 19th century (Bairoch 1993; Bairoch & Kozul- Wright 1996, Kozul-Wright and Rowthorn ed., forthcoming 1997).

The record of that period was much more mixed.

Britain embraced laissez faire in the 1840s - six decades after Adam Smith wrote his Wealth of Nations and nearly three decades after David Ricardo's essay against corn laws and then his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Britain adopted laissez faire after it became the leader in industrial production, with a per capita industrial production in 1830 about 250% more than the rest of Europe. And European Free Trade began around 1860, with the Anglo-French treaty, and was followed by French treaties with several other European countries.

Change from laissez faire to State role

But that liberal regime collapsed on continental Europe within two decades, with France and Germany changing course. While the French and German political situations and rivalries played a part, there is little doubt that French and German public saw the advantages of laissez faire accrued mainly to Britain. It was this change, from laissez faire to a state role in the economy, that enabled France and Germany to industrialize (and escape the worst rigors of the Long Depression).

To the extent that British laissez faire was enforced on what is now the South, those countries were prevented from participating in the industrial revolution; the enforced practice of British liberal economics on its empire is responsible for much of the under-development of the South. And when Germany and Japan did not embrace British laissez faire, efforts made to force those policies on them by denying them access to raw materials and markets for their products, this contributed to the tensions that resulted in the two world wars (Nayyar 1996). The first world war, historians are now generally agreed, was certainly due to this economic element, while it was a contributory element in the events that led to the rise of nazism and fascism, and to the second world war.

Confusing process with end objective

For a while in the 1990s, the term globalization came to be used in an euphoric way, confusing the processes under way in the world economy with the end objective of a one-world economy, where history and geography would not matter, a world of a future where all the different national sovereignties and entities would give way to a common world, where people irrespective of their past - nationalities, and differing race and cultures - would be 'integrated' into a single entity and live ever after happily. But as we noted earlier, the word has been used both to describe the process as well as to prescribe certain policies and actions (Nayyar, 1995 & 1996).

But despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the New Order, history has not come to an end (Frank, Andre Gunder et al, 1996) and geography has not been obliterated for people ; and even the annihilation of geography for capital is highly selective.

And the neo-liberal economics, and the freedom of trade and investment associated and practised with it, is confined to the product and services sectors (financial, high-tech, including information sectors) where the North has high productivity advantages and dominance. In other sectors where the South has an advantage, or emerging dominance, there is talk of "fair trade" - meaning right to use selective instruments like anti-dumping and countervailing rules, or special protectionist regimes as in agriculture, and creating protectionist global monopolies, through the WTO intellectual property regime - to prevent the rise of competition from the South.

Relocation to a few countries

Globalization is generally seen as a process in the world economy, propelled by neo-liberal economics, where (TNCs) are locating their production and parts of their production systems in various parts of the world to supply markets everywhere. Even as a descriptive process, the actual reality is somewhat different. Financial markets have become "globalized", functioning around the clock and around the world. Manufacturing and manufacturing capital are much less so; and even when corporations are relocating themselves to supply distant product markets, it is a phenomenon confined to a few countries and regions, and is largely absent from most parts of the Third World . The globalization process has spread to just a few parts of the developing world, mainly in the Far East and South-East Asia, and to some parts of Latin America - and within those areas it has spread unevenly. And everywhere there is evidence of increased marginalisation. (Kregel, 1997; Holmn, 1997).

Term overly used

But the term has now come into such common usage - used and misused by economists, politicians, journalists, international bureaucrats and technocrats - that it has become a debased coin. It is used, and confused, with terms like "openness", "interdependence" and "integration" (of different national economies into a single world economy) which are somewhat different concepts and involve many other factors and elements (Panic, 1988).

And in most countries and among the public, the term "globalization" has come to be identified with the problems facing ordinary people - lack of jobs and job insecurity, harder work and for longer hours for less real wages and incomes (for those lucky enough to get jobs) and other hardships. And among the public in the countries of the South, "globalization" has become a new word for an old system - colonization or recolonization.


It is also clearly linked to (and in fact has become inseparable from) neo-liberal economics, whose reality has caught up with the initial euphoria. It is no exaggeration to say that in the world of today the backlash against globalization and neo-liberal economics is very much a factor that its protagonists are being forced to recognize, but are unable to deal with. For, the problems are pre-eminently political, though that term has come to be used pejoratively by the privileged to preserve their interests, and solutions lie in the realm of political-economy of nations and the world. And economists who have driven politics out of economics, in their own thinking, are unable to grapple with this.

Neither Adam Smith nor David Ricardo were "economists", but political philosophers whose enquiries into material economics led them to make a series of broad, and quite pragmatic, proposals to cure the societies of their day of their ills. They were battling ther mercantlism and feudalism of their days. And Ricardo's theories about comparative advantage were not simply about patterns of trade and gains from trade; it was also about the impact of international trade on income distribution, capital accumulation and economic growth. His advocacy of repeal of Corn laws and adoption of free trade was aimed at redistributing incomes, away from the landed gentry who either did not save or invested only in agriculture with its diminishing returns, in favour of industrial capitalist class who would save and invest (Nayyar, 1996).

An their doctrines were fashioned to suit their country interests.

That was why Adam Smith was able to preach liberalism, even as he was able to justify and defend the British Navigation Acts used to control the trade and shipping of goods to and from the American colonies. And Ricardo's example of the comparative advantage in the exchange of British textiles for Portuguese wine was possible only because the wine trade (bottling, shipping and marketing in Britain) was in the hands of the British of which Ricardo could not have been unaware of. That free trade promoted growth and industrialization of Britain, and resulted in stagnation of Portugal. Investment in cloth in the UK was associated with increasing returns, and capital accumulation, while that on wine-making in Portugal had diminishing returns. And Portugal acquiesced in it for the naval protection that the British provided (Nayyar, 1996).

Forced on countries

But neo-liberal economics and the economists of this school, have rigorously excluded political and social studies and issues and the different countries and their cultures and backgrounds, from their thinking and in the policy advises provided. And when a uniform model, and policies based on that model, are forced on of countless countries by economists from the IFIs, without regard to individual country conditions, they are bound to fail as they have. "The simple fact is that economists are usually not intellectually equipped and often not philosophically predisposed to analyze the unique featur of a society, in order to advocate changes that fit well into the existing structures." (Morrel, 1997).

The Washington-based BWIs, and their bureaucrats and economists, have begun to recognize the rising backlash against globalization and neo-liberal economics, but are unable to deal with it beyond prescribing some "add-ons" (in the form of social safety-nets etc) to their structural programs (UNCTAD 1997), and indulging in some public relations jobs such as consultations with NGOs in an effort to co-opt the latter. And some of the new agendas, and conditionalities that go with it, of the BWIs and multilateral and regional Development Banks (MDBs), in this effort of theirs to woo some of the Northern lobbies and NGOs, is bringing the BWIs increasingly into a dangerous territory of domestic politics of countries, and will have some profound consequences for the BWIs and regional banks (Kapur, Devesh 1997; Mohammad, Aziz Ali 1997).

Many of these issues and causes may be intrinsically meritorious, but when they are forced on countries and their domestic policies from outside, there will be an inevitable backlash - and signs of it are already visible - with negative consequences for all these issues and causes.

WTO as a rule-based system

But the two-year old World Trade Organization and its leaders, are blissfully ignoring these developments to promote vigorously their version of globalization (dismantling the state and state regulations, and expanding the space for TNCs) and neo-liberal economics, and the neo-mercantalist policies and agendas of the North. This is accentuating the problems of globalization and neo-liberal economics. And the backlash against globalization and neo-liberal economics in the industrial world is becoming identified with the WTO and its system itself.

The WTO trading system is presented as a rule-based system, with a credible and enforceable dispute settlement process. There can be little argument that a multilateral system based on rules is better than bilateral arrangements based on power.

But the 580 pages of rules constituting the system are asymmetric and imbalanced, and lay an unjust and iniquitous burden on the poorer countries, treating unequals as equals. Some 30 areas of such imbalances and inequities in rules, including the dispute settlement mechanism, and needing changes, have been identified as priority areas to be addressed, if the system is to gain acceptance and provide stability. Developing countries failed to address this issue at Singapore, but this must be the first order of priority for the 1998 Second Ministerial meeting (Das, B.L. 1996; Das, 1997), if the system is to survive.

The governance and decision-making processes of the BWIs are based on the one-dollar-one-vote principle. Whatever the merits of this for financial and lending institutions, it is certainly undemocratic when these institutions have begun to lay down the domestic economic, social and political policies of developing countries and transition economies, and these policies reflect the interests of the majors.

The WTO, on the other hand, is based on equality of rights and obligations of its members, and decisions by consensus - a practice of the old GATT that the WTO is exhorted to follow - but with the possibility of voting, by various majorities, for various purposes to resolve issues.

Advancing agendas of major industrialized nations

While this is so in theory, in practice, the decision- making process at the WTO is used to advance the agendas of the majors, and particularly those of the US and Western Europe.

The major industrial nations do not want the WTO to decide issues democratically by vote, and insist on preserving the consensus rule. But the decision-making process is so manipulated that issues of interest to them can be brought up and decided by forcing a consensus (through the informal consultation processes) on the South. But the issues of interest to the South fall by the wayside on the ground that there is no consensus; and, more often than not, the majors don't even have to face the odium of blocking consensus - these issues never come formally before meetings.

This was amply demonstrated in the runup to and at the first Ministerial meeting of the WTO in December 1996. While the year-long preparatory process in the WTO's General Council had brought up and identified a number of problems relating to the implementation of the Marrakesh Agreements of the Uruguay Round, and the failures of the majors in carrying out their obligations in letter and spirit, these were only reflected in the speeches of individual countries at Singapore (mostly to empty plenary m meetings), and did not figure at all in the totally non-transparent and undemocratic decision-making process of informal consultations among a small group of countries.

Not transparent

The non-transparency of the decision-making process of the WTO at the Singapore Ministerial Conference was such that NGOs present there found that the process was not only not transparent to the NGOs and civil society, but even to the large major ity of WTO's developing-country members. They found that senior officials and Ministers from the large number of developing countries were kept in the dark and presented, at the last moment, texts which they were asked to adopt unchanged lest the consensus unravel.

Southern NGOs who had been campaigning against the WTO's non-transparency to civil society found themselves having to campaign for the rights of their governments ! (SUNS & TWE reports)

The process at Singapore, and the earlier Geneva process of informal heads of delegation consultations organized by the head of the WTO, was concerned solely with the new demands and agendas of the major nations, and particularly those of the US and the EU.

The only trade issue that was addressed at Singapore, and ended with a tentative agreement, was the sectoral plurilateral agreement for zero tariffs by year 2000 on Information Technology Products, that had been negotiated principally among the Quad countries, the major exporters and importers of these products.

Usurped by financial markets

As we stand on the threshold of the 21st century, there are increasing signs of inherent fragility of the system of international economic relations.

When the world moved from the fixed exchange rate system of the Bretton Woods to the floating exchange rates system - as a result of US President Richard Nixon's unilateral repudiation of the US obligations under the IMF agreement - it was presented a s one that increases the policy autonomy of countries. In fact, it is now clear that even the most powerful countries have lost their policy autonomy, and the democratic power of parliaments to set economic and in particular fiscal and monetary policies have been usurped by the financial markets and the rating agencies.

Liberalization is advocated and pushed by the trading system on the ground that it increases welfare and benefits consumers. This is the premise on which developing countries are being pushed and pulled by the WTO (and the World Bank, ITU) etc in liberalizing their telecommunications services.

But even in the richest country, it would appear that the liberalized deregulated telecom sector is going to result in increased costs of universal service for the ordinary households (New York Times, 30 March, 1997).

In mid-April, the WTO kicked off negotiations on financial services, and developing countries are under pressure to liberalize their financial sectors.

Movements of funds across frontiers

But all evidence suggests that a major consequence of such liberalization is to increase the ability of speculators to move funds across frontiers, and the resulting scale of these movements pose major policy problems even for the most powerful countries. For developing countries to undertake the major structural changes in their economy and pursue the policies forced on them, they need large external resources and access to technologies. But a variety of factors in the North has resulted in drying up of official resource transfers; and technology under the WTO system is a monopolistic resource that their owners, the TNCs, can and do withhold from competitors.

At the same time, there has been a large spurt in private capital flows.

According to the World Bank (World Bank, 1997), private capital now accounts for more than 80% of net long-term flows to developing countries. Out of a total of some $285 billion in 1996, private flows accounted for around 244 billion dollars , an increase of 60 billion dollars from the previous year. But 73 percent of private investment went to only 12 countries. Most of Africa and many of the poorer countries elsewhere have been largely bypassed by these private flows, even as ODA has been dropping, and these countries are asked to depend on the market and foreign investment.

Speculative investments

While the Bank in its report has taken credit for the fact that these private flows are going to the developing world because of the reforms in these countries under policies advocated by the Bank, the report acknowledges that much of the investment boom in the developing world is not being driven by so-called "economic fundamentals". Rather, it is being led by the promise of high interest yields on debt issues and by speculators looking to make a quick killing on local stock markets. "Investors are eager to diversify portfolios and seek higher profits in dynamic emerging markets," the Bank says. Thus, portfolio investments, much of which are speculative, have posted very fast growth.

But such resource flows constrain the time-horizons for productive investment and can provide no stable basis for industrialization and development.

When the postwar economic system was being negotiated across the Atlantic, between the UK and the USA, treasury officials and policy makers on both sides were convinced that a stable trading system based on principles of free trade would need a stable monetary system and the former would not last long without the latter.

The WTO push for liberalization of financial services and markets, under a floating exchange rate system where the currency values are driven up or down, not by economic fundamentals, but by speculative movements of short-term capital, suggests a dogmatic belief, contrary to past experience and facts, that a world trade order based on open markets would be able to survive in a world of financial disorder where no country now is proof against speculators (Raghavan, 1997; Kregel, January 1997).

Rising unemployment, inequality in North

For the past two decades, due to the macroeconomic stance of the major industrial countries, and the emphasis on control of inflation as the objective of monetary and fiscal policies, to the exclusion or negligence of other objectives like dealing with unemployment, poverty and inequality, there has been persistent and rising unemployment, stagnant real wages of workers who are employed, and rising inequality.

With all this talk of globalization and relocation of plants or parts of a production process by TNCs in various locations in the Third World, the unemployment in the North and low real wages of those employed (both skilled and unskilled) is being blamed on North-South trade and cheaper imports from the South. Others are blaming the rising unemployment to technological changes and loss of competitiveness.

Neither provide an adequate explanation.

It is undoubtedly true that unskilled labour in the North has been displaced on a significant scale in a number of labour-intensive industries - clothing and footwear for example where developing countries have increased their market shares. But this does not provide a convincing explanation for the unemployment in the North (UNCTAD, 1995 & 1996). In the 1960s, when richer countries faced increased competition, this time from countries like Japan and Italy, they were able to adjust because expansionary economic policies underpinned a fast pace of industrial and economic growth.

Pressure for trade barriers

With these conditions missing in the North, there have been renewed pressure for trade barriers against "cheap imports" from the South. And spurious theories of "fair trade", and demands for imposition of higher labour standards in the Third World and for placing restrictions on imports on a variety of considerations including labour standards, environment norms etc. are being advanced.

In response, even while resisting broader protectionist demands, the major industrial countries are using and misusing a variety of trade instruments (like anti-dumping and countervailing measures) to hit competitive imports.

Technological changes are often suggested as an alternate cause for rising unemployment in the North. But this on its own is an inadequate explanation. There have been in the past too, technological breakthroughs in particular industrial sectors that increased the competitiveness of firms, but this did not give rise to the structural unemploy ment of today.

And while the state is being "disarmed" in developing countries, there are government-led efforts now in the industrialized world to improve and increase the competitivity of national firms, and the general exhortation to every country (from the economists in the BWIs, WTO and neo- classical think tanks) to increase competitivity.

But it defies all economic logic to think that every country can become equally competitive.

Macroeconomic policies

Rising unemployment cannot be considered in isolation from the macro-economic stance of the major industrial countries, which has imparted a deflationary bias to the world economy. Without this macroeconomic policy stance, the contribution of other factors such as technlogical advance to unemployment could have been mitigated or offset.

Until and unless this contradiction is resolved, and this can only be done in a cooperative way internationally, governments in the North will find it increasingly difficult to resist protectionist pressures and liberalize in sectors of importance to the developing countries.

Most of these countries have embraced the neo-liberal economics, and are striving both to open up their own economies (and they have done so under pressure from the IFIs , without getting any benefit from the trading system and their trading partners) and integrate fast into the world economy.

However, for their policies of export-oriented growth to succeed, the WTO's multilateral trading system must continue to evolve in the direction of greater openness of markets in the North to their exports.

System in danger of collapse

But unless the problems of unemployment and low real wages, in particular among the unskilled, in the North are resolved by macroeconomic policies, the WTO multilateral trading system will be unable to withstand the pressures and will collapse.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the liberal economic philosophy collapsed in Britain when the public were no longer willing to put up with hardships and unemployment and low wages in the belief that liberal or laissez faire economics would in the long run benefit everyone through trickledown. And those few at the top who were benefiting from that system would not see, and would not make changes, and liberalism collapsed. And in Britain's Indian empire, the inseparability of the colonial political system and the oppressive, exploitative and inequitous economic system that impoverished the masses, gave rise to a revolutionary situation and Gandhi's civil disobedience movement that ended the British Raj.

A similar situation is now at play - in the North and in the South - and those at the top of the heap are demonstrating a similar inability to heed the lessons of history.

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(TWE No. 159/160, 16 April-15 May 1997)