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How global are we? A Christian's view of globalisation
by Stephen Harris,
Wellington, Feburary, 2003

The scale of global challenges often seems daunting and disempowering. We feel like tiny specks on a huge screen. "Lord, your sea is so wide and my boat is so small". What can we possibly do that will be more than a drop in that ocean?

In the globalising world the instantly recognisable logo has become a symbol of exploitation - even oppression - in the minds of many. It has marched in at the shoulder of armies, which have brutally repressed the rights of local interests to maintain traditional lifestyles. Big money in cahoots with corrupt and often-violent despots. It has, in short, become all-conquering.

Is this your view of the cross? Nike or Shell maybe. But remember that Christianity was the first true globalising force. Unlike the Romans or the empires that went before them, the crusaders and many "civilisers" of at least the past nine hundred years have wielded the cross no less than the sword. Columbus's ship, Santa Maria, bore a red cross on its sails.

I started with the example I did just to illustrate that what we all might regard as one positive globalising force - Christianity - isn't seen that way by everyone.

"Globalisation." What do we mean? When Bill Clinton was President, he ordered that no-one in his Administration was to use the word because it was not specific. All around us, maybe, but not specific. We, too, need to be careful in our thinking about what we mean by "globalisation." It's a term riddled with contradictions. One I like is the way anti-globalisers rally support over the internet. We also need to be clear about the results of globalisation. And we need to get behind the motives of the globalisers to get any sort of meaningful grasp on whether certain aspects of globalisation should encourage us or concern us.

Three faces of globalisation
Before we make sweeping judgments about whether globalisation is a "good" or a "bad" phenomenon, we have to try to get a handle on what we're actually referring to. It seems to me the debate is about three broad themes, often interlinked: The first is economic - is the world becoming one great big marketplace where borders cease to matter? Secondly, is cultural diversity being rubbed out, mostly by the global mass media? Thirdly, what rules are being put in place to regulate this process, and are they working? I'll conclude by suggesting an approach I have found useful in making sense of all this from a Christian perspective.

I want to dispatch the concerns about globalisation at the cultural level first up. The French have recently become so concerned about the inroads of American messages they banned English from advertising billboards. A little extreme, perhaps, but if the French are worried, how must many smaller nations feel?

Culture and identity
As a journalist by training yes, I am concerned by the amalgamation of media mega-networks by moguls like Rupert Murdoch. But there's so much choice now - not so little - that I can choose to watch something else. That's globalisation. In the political sphere, nations are not losing their identity as the world increasingly develops along regional lines. East Timor, the new parliament in Scotland, the Baltic states, the former Yugoslavia….New nations are being formed and peoples are finding their distinctive voices, not becoming global androids. People are tribal. Parochialism is in good shape. Much as Christians talk about the universal church, we all know that even Christians are a very motley lot.

A global economy
Looming larger for most people when we think of globalisation is its economic dimension. Here the phenomenon has a much more mixed pedigree.

I am a strong believer in the potential for trade to spur economic development. There is a huge body of evidence supporting that. For example, the average South Korean or Taiwanese is nine times richer today than in 1970. Trade made that possible. North Korea is the counter example, if you still need convincing. And economic development is usually a seedbed for social and political development - a two-edged sword China is clearly grappling with.

So, why the concern? Is the target of anti-globalisers the power of multi-national corporations to corner large chunks of the world market in their goods and services?

  • Or to use their economic muscle and political connections to influence the rules to suit themselves? If so, that's hardly a new phenomenon. Look at the British East India Company or United Fruit in Central America.
  • Or is it concern at the wages these multinationals pay their workers? - certainly pitiful by western stands, but for many a ticket out of abject rural poverty.

Is it the ever-present nature of global brands - Coca Cola, Nike, IBM, McDonalds to name a few? They're successful only because we want to buy them. Look at the Swatch phenomenon, which brought the Swiss watch industry - and all the jobs in it - back from oblivion.

A polarisation of views
The UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, believes trade can do more to alleviate poverty than any other single measure. Yet there is clearly a polarisation of views about what we conveniently label "globalisation." Some of the reasons can be read in the statistics:

  • Half the world lives on less than two US dollars a day each
  • A quarter of all the people in developing countries can't read
  • Per capita exports by developing countries amount to a twelfth those of the wealthy countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Obviously globalisation has not cured poverty. But I note that while developing countries make up 40 percent of the world's population they account for only three percent of global trade. That tells me that one answer is not less trade but more of it - so that these poorer nations can lift themselves out of poverty, just as South Korea, Taiwan and other Asian "tigers" have done.

Global institutions and global challenges
So if trade is not the rogue gene of globalisation, what is? For me, an important starting point for how globalisation can be made to slice up the resources pie more evenly is to look at global institutions. The disruption is happening on a global scale, so why not call in a global policeman? There are two problems with this. Firstly, global responses to global challenges cut against our notions of democracy, which is rooted in local communities. People say our sovereignty is undermined. But an environmental crisis, such as an oil spill, or a poison gas cloud or an epidemic won't stop at the border, so neither should the countermeasures.

The second problem is that some global institutions seem to make some problems worse. Look at the plight of coffee growers. Forced by the IMF or the World Bank to replace food crops with a cash crop for export, many can't even cover the cost of production. This is policy failure - a dumb idea in other words - and should be condemned as such. Globalisation may be the scene of the crime, but it is not the criminal.

Technology roadblocks
My other big concern is that the globalisation race is increasingly being won by those with the most expensive skates. Advances in technology are so rapid that poorer countries simply can't afford the hardware - let alone possess the skills - to keep up. A few years ago I worked for German shortwave radio, broadcasting to many parts of the Third World. We lost a big chunk of our budget to the director-general's new sugar-baby, satellite television. It made him look good. Deutsche Welle TV. Maybe you watch it. The problem was, most of our audience in Africa and South Asia were dependent on scarce short wave radios; they certainly had no hope of tuning in to satellite TV.

Technology - particularly communications technology - is crucial to helping that 40 percent of the world who live in developing countries to share the benefits globalisation.

Maybe this is one area where the debate about "fair" trade versus "free" trade should be weighed up. But in doing so, we need to keep our eye on motives. After rioting shut down the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle three years ago, it was alleged that some of the rioters were funded by an American textiles conglomerate. This firm wanted to protect its home market from increased imports, by scuttling efforts to open the US market to cheaper imports from the developing world. The unions wanting to protect jobs found common cause with big business wanting to protect profits. Yet that same conglomerate wanted to be able to keep exporting - in some cases to developing countries. This shows why I think "fair" is a very subjective term.

Fair play depends on rules
It's true, the system is still skewed in favour of the big players. New Zealand faces raised drawbridges all around the world and earns lower profits as a result - along with most of the developing world.

Yet rules of some sort are hugely important. They can be the great leveler of opportunity for small, trade-dependent countries like New Zealand. We have been among the strongest supporters of the so-called "development agenda" of the current negotiations in the World Trade Organisation, or WTO. This is not just about equipping poorer members - who make up two-thirds of the WTO's 144 members - to make better use of the opportunities created. It is also about such survival basics as getting drugs at more affordable prices to the 30 million AIDS sufferers in the developing world.

International rules are no less a feature of globalisation than brands, multinationals or, for that matter, international crime like money-laundering and the drugs trade. Those rules contribute to international stability by disciplining global trade, just as the United Nations helps to police benchmarks of international conduct in the political and security sphere. This is global governance.

Does this global governance represent a new order that should make us feel more comfortable that "globalisation" is not running amok? And where have we, as Christians, heard that phrase - "a new world order" - before? I'm not referring to President George W. Bush post-September 11, nor his dad after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The phrase comes from one of the very first modern globalisers - Saint Paul. In his second letter to the church at Corinth, Paul speaks of a "new order…for anyone united to Christ." He goes on to describe this new order as just as much a point of departure as a point of arrival. "God has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation….we are therefore Christ's ambassadors." (2 Corinthians 5:18 & 20)

How might Christians respond?
Yet the scale of global challenges often seems daunting and disempowering. We feel like tiny specks on a huge screen. "Lord, your sea is so wide and my boat is so small". What can we possibly do that will be more than a drop in that ocean?

Christ's ambassadors. For me, this provides a pretty powerful contrast to the de-personalised nature of so much we call "globalisation." Globalisation is no different from other big themes confronting us as Christians. It challenges us personally. It also gives us authority to act according to a universal vision that is inclusive, not diminishing nor dehumanising.

We've probably all heard Marshall McLuhan's phrase "the global village" and may even wonder where Paul's reference to "God's household" fits into that.

An open house in the village
It creates an obligation to people both in that household and an obligation to help others wanting to come in. And in the global village not much goes unnoticed by the neighbours - both within the household's thin walls and as we come and go. As with any family or community, there is a causal chain between neglect and dysfunction - even violence. Globalisation means that chain is becoming shorter all the time. It would be stating the obvious to itemise the examples of that as the effects of epidemics, debt crises and international terrorism reverberate with scant regard to national - or wealth - boundaries.

We have probably all heard the phrase "think globally, act locally." A few years ago, New Zealand won a fiercely contested seat on the United Nations Security Council. Part of that success was due to winning the collective support of African nations. Some of their delegates said they voted for New Zealand because of experiences with kiwi backpackers who had stopped during their overland trips through Africa, and had helped to build wells or other village projects. They were behaving very much like Christ's ambassadors - whether they realised it or not.

What we do can make a difference if our motives are sound. Whether the new international order that politicians like George Bush talk about bears any resemblance to the one that inspired Paul may depend on the President's motives - and on our collective efforts to reconcile a divided world. God's household sits squarely on the busiest corner of the global village.

 

 

 

 

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