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Sen on globalization
Tuesday, 19 May 2009 06:03

Globalization is not global westernization according to Amartya Sen in his 2002 article "How to judge globalism".  There is no time like the present, when globalization is getting a bad rap because of the financial crisis, to recall some of his arguments.

For Sen, globalization is neither new, nor entirely western, nor a curse.  But its benefits are not shared fairly.  That is the problem to be tackled.

As dazzling as is today's Internet and modern biotechnology, science, technology and mathematics have been global phenomena for centures.  Thanks to India, the decimal system was developed between the second and sixth centuries.  It was picked up by Arab mathematicians and then reached Europe in the 10th century, where it played an important role in the scientific revolution that transformed Europe.  Around the same time, a thousand years ago, hi-tech items like paper, the printing press, the crossbow, gunpowder, the iron-chain suspension bridge, the kite, the magnetic compass, the wheelbarrow and the rotary fan all globalized their way across the world from China through to western Europe.

So the globalization of science and technology is as old as the hills, and the West should be grateful for this -- as much as the East should be proud!

Globalization is the product of our global heritage.  Sure, western history is unique with the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the development of the New World.  But there is a chain of intellectual relations that link Western mathematics and science to non-western practitioners like the 9th century Arab mathematician Mohammad Ibn Musa-al-Khwarizmi.  The term algebra is derived from the title of his famous book Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah.  And then there are globalized events which did not even touch the West.  Take the printing of the world's first book.  The technology was Chinese.  The book, "The Diamond Sutra" was an Indian Sanskrit treatise.  And it was translated into Chinese by a half-Turk!

So resistance to the globalization of ideas, science and knowledge, on the basis that it is westernization, is not only short-sighted, it is stupid!  The prosperity and development of the West is due in good part to its openess to the East.

Globalization has been a blessing, not a curse, to all countries which have embraced it.  It is easy to forget that the West was mired in poverty until the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.  And more recently in East Asia, remarkable reductions in poverty have been achieved by countries which have opened up to global markets and knowledge.

For Sen, the real issue is inequality both between and within countries.  Sure most of the poor are gaining something from globalization, like moving from an income of $1 a day to $2 a day.  Everyone is better off.  However, in the face of such appalling poverty and staggering inequalities, can we say that there is a fair distribution of the benefits of globalization?  

There is an urgent need for both international and national reforms to improve the distribution of the benefits of globalization.  At the national level, public policies are critical in areas like education, epidemiology, land reform, microcredit, legal protection etc.  Internationally, we need fair trade, medical initiatives, educational exchanges, technological dissemination, ecological and environmental restraints, and fair treatment of accumulated debts incurred by irresponsible military leaders of the past.  Other issues include improving access to lifesaving drugs for diseases like AIDS, and the global trade in arms and weapons which feed local wars and military conflicts.  The permanent members of the UN Security Council, whose job is to ensure world peace, are responsible for 80% of world arms exports!

Sen's article is designed to address the arguments of the anti-globalization movement.  That is, he agrees with them that something must be done.  But that soemthing is not stopping globalization, but improving the sharing of its benefits.

Western governments and multinational enterprises are the usual targets of anti-globalization campaigners.  But as the successful development experience of East Asia shows, reforms by national governments in developing countries can make the most difference.  Less successful cases, as in Latin America, are often those where a small elite gangs-up on the poor mass by according themselves privileges and protections, and keeping the poor in uneducated poverty.


"How to judge globalism" by Amartya Sen, The American Prospect vol.13 no 1, January 1, 2002-January 14, 2002.

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