Hearing Voices


Dialogue. Conversation. Being available to each other. Facilitating. Discussing. Discourse. Talk, deep honest revealing dialogue.

Participants in the World Forum apparently believe that all the world's problems will go away if we could all just get a room together, hold hands, and really, really listen to each other. It may be 30 years too late, but the meeting finally delivers on the promise of "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."

But is it just me or is there something a bit incongruous about a bunch of well-heeled people eating steak in the Grand Ballroom of a $250 per night Manhattan hotel while claiming that they speak on behalf of 1.2 billion of the world's poor who live on less than $1 per day?

The morning plenary session on the social implications of globalization began promisingly with Robert Wright from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Wright was an encyclopedia of information on recent economic progress, e.g., in 1960 only 20 percent of the world's people lived in open economies, today 60 percent do. In 1986 world trade was $2 trillion; in 1999 it reached $5.6 trillion. A gigabyte of memory on a hard disk drive cost over $250 in 1995, today it costs $8 and will drop to $2 by 2002. People spent only 33 billion minutes on the phone in 1990, but that jumped to 90 billion minutes in 1998, and the largest increase was in the developing countries. Wright explained that business under the constant pressure of competition adapts first and faster to new technologies (like the Internet) and that other institutions will soon follow. Information technology levels the playing field as never before, putting government agencies, large corporations, small businesses, non-profits, and individual citizens on relatively equal footing.

Ruud Lubbers, former prime minister of the Netherlands and chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, harrumphed that "maybe we are not all so optimistic" about globalization as he introduced the next speaker, Huguette Labelle. Labelle, former president of the Canadian International Development Agency, soon proved Lubbers right. Labelle acknowledged that globalization has created immense wealth, but then promptly warned against a globalization ideology which says "that governments should mostly get out of the way and retain only residual functions like maintaining law and order and handling international affairs." She added, "This ideology is accompanied by pressures to reduce taxes, and thus make governments less capable of helping populations buffeted by globalization." Maintaining law and order seems more than a "residual" function to me. More to the point perhaps, most of the world's governments don't even do that much now, though they sure can tax.

Jay Mazur, the energetic president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers, admitted that globalization had raised the standard of living for many people. But then he thundered, "Livelihoods have been destroyed by multinational corporations" and that "globalization has uprooted families and communities, hurling them into this brave new economic world without the skills and knowledge to participate." Mazur claimed that of the 100 largest economies of the world, 51 are corporations and 49 are countries. Thus, "the concentration of wealth and power in corporations is overwhelming nation states." Finally Mazur warned, "Globalization has turned much of the world into a kind of economic Wild West," which needs to be tamed by strong, international labor standards.

In a session on "Persistent World Poverty: Enterprise as a Solution," sponsored by the pro-market Atlas Economic Research Foundation, UCLA economist Deepak Lal countered arguments like Mazur's. Lal argued that "those who promote international labor and environmental standards couldn't find a more effective way to hurt the poor in developing countries." Such standards would constitute a "protection racket for a small labor aristocracy" in developing countries and lock other poor people out of entry-level jobs, he claimed.

An authentic hero, Muhammad Yunus, the Founder and Director of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh gave a keynote speech during lunch. Yunus was introduced as the person who has done "more than anyone in history to empower the poor." The Grameen Bank, founded by Yunus in the 1983, makes very small loans to very poor people in Bangladesh who use them to establish tiny businesses. Grameen has 2.4 million borrowers, 95 percent of whom are women. The bank concentrates on lending to women because bank research has shown that women tend to have a longer term planning horizon and spend more business profits on family members than do men. The example of Grameen has inspired a global microcredit movement that has spread to 65 developing countries and has reached 17 million borrowers around the globe. Grameen, organized like a credit union, is profitable. "It is not a charity; it is a business and its funds are recycled and continues to grow," underscored Yunus.

Yunus is also extremely excited about the potential of information technology to help the poor in developing countries, and he's not just being theoretical about it. Grameen Phone has distributed more than 2,000 mobile phones to "phone ladies" in 2,000 villages. The phone ladies sell phone service to villagers and thus pay for the phones while earning double the national average income. Yunus is also working with Hewlett Packard to bring internet kiosks to villages. The Grameen Digital Centers will be operated by touch screens and voice commands so that even illiterate villagers can use them.

Yunus is not the only person excited by the possibilities of information technology. Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women's Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace, noted that "in Muslim countries, women have been limited in what they can do in the public space. It is extraordinary what one computer in the home can do to connect women to knowledge, education, and the wider world."

Harvard economist and development guru Jeffrey Sachs declared in the Enterprise Solution session that on a recent trip to India, he found that "no village, no matter how far off the road it was, was without an Internet stand where villagers could pick up email." Sachs also said that in every Indian village he visited there was an Internet course being taught.

These hopes for information technology got me to thinking about the possibility that developing nations might be able to skip the period of industrial regimentation that characterized economic development in the West during the past two centuries. Information technologies are supremely flexible and the work rhythms of the information economy are coming to resemble the work rhythms found on family farms and other pre-industrial, home-based centers of production. Mom and Dad work at home, able to keep an eye on the kids. While juggling a wide variety of disparate tasks, they are not required to work on a fixed schedule determined by the needs of a hierarchically arranged business. Perhaps for many people in the developing world, the rhythms of the farm will simply meld into the variable pace of work in the information economy.

Gen. Colin Powell also spoke at lunch on the plight of children, but Yunus was a hard act to follow, and Powell's talk was more like a dessert than an entree–pleasing and sweet, but not particularly substantive. Powell told a charming story about a meeting he had with Gorbachev at the Pentagon as the Cold War was winding down. Gorbachev told him, "General, you will have to find new enemy." Powell said that he thought to himself, "I don't want a new enemy—I like this one."

After lunch, Jeffrey Sachs offered a near-despairing assessment of the situation in Africa. "There has been no progress in sub-Saharan Africa in the past 20 years and unless something is done soon, there will another 20 years of failure," he said. African governments do not provide even a minimally adequate environment to attract investment and the disease burden of AIDS and malaria is horrific, undermining any successes that do occur. "There is no chance of getting out of this situation without some sort of coherent science-based approach," said Sachs. He wants more aid for health initiatives in developing countries, pointing out that the total scientific effort toward controlling malaria is around $50 million per year despite the fact that some 500 million people contract it every year and 2 million die of it. "I don't blame the pharmaceutical companies for not spending on malaria. There are lots of deaths, and lots of suffering, but there's no money in malaria," said Sachs.

World Bank social scientist Nat Colletta usefully pointed out that something besides globalization is at the root of a lot of poverty. "Out the 20 poorest countries, 14 of them are in conflict," said Colletta. "One third of the countries in Africa are in conflict now and one half of African countries have been, are in, or are just coming out of conflict."

Across town at the United Nations' Millennium Summit, political leaders talked about the same things that the participants in the World Forum discussed, only more diplomatically–and hence more superficially.