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Global problems, global society?
Monday, 06 April 2009 09:32

To quote the Communique of last week's G20 summit, "a global crisis requires a global solution".  But to get agreement on global solutions, there needs to be a sense of global community or society.  To what extent does that exist?  This question was a addressed a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Globalization of trade, investment, finance and migration brings with it many global problems that affect all people such as human-induced global warming, over-exploitation of national resources and of course all too frequently financial crises.  To tackle these problems effectively requires large scale co-operation among citizens from different countries. 

The authors of this article explore the following question -- what does globalization mean for the human co-operation which is necessary for solving the very problems that globalization creates. 

They posit two hypotheses.  One, globalization may provoke an inward-looking, parochial reaction whereby "Large-scale co-operation then focuses on favouring one's own ethnic, racial, or language group".  Evidence of this could be the rise of xenophobic political parties, and Basque, Scottish and Quebec independence movements.

Alternatively, globalization may strengthen cosmopolitan attitudes by weakening local, ethnic or national identities with the result that humans identify with broader, international identities.  We are all members of humankind!  This hypothesis could be supported by the global campaigns for human rights and humanitarian relief -- the tsunami in South East Asia gave rise to a massive outburst of global support.  Also, there are a growing number of environmental and developmental civil society organisations which are part of international networks and operate on a global basis.  Information and communication technologies greatly facilitate these movements.   

The researchers test these hypotheses by experiments in one large metropolitan area in each of the following countries: US (the most globalized of the group), Italy, Russia, Argentina, South Africa and Iran (the least globalized).  The test was conducted on about 190 subjects per country, amounting to 1,145 participants in total.

The test "measures whether individuals are self-interested, willing to co-operate exclusively with people from their own locality, or, alternatively, to co-operate with groups from around the world".  They find that the more globalized the country, the more willing are its citizens to co-operate at the global level than at the local level.  As globalization proceeds, individuals have more cosmopolitan rather than parochial motivations.  That is, they become more members of international society than local society.  This gives us great hope for solving the many global problems which we now face. 

This study requires however careful reading.  While globalization may be a powerful force for shaping large-scale human co-operation, the paper presents no analysis regarding the form of such co-operation.  Intergovernmental co-operation is the most natural way to solve global problems and provide global public goods.  At the same time, public trust in government is low in many countries -- in recent years Chinese citizens have had much greater trust in their government than American have had in theirs!  And trust in international organisations like the IMF is also very low in regions which believe that they have suffered from the IMF's programs.  In many countries, citizens trust NGOs, foundations and even business more than they trust government.  But, while they can make important contributions, these groups are not well-positioned to solve global problems like climate change, resource depletion or financial crises. 

At the end of every night there is a new dawn.  Thus, our American friends elected Barrack Obama President of their country.  His new leadership, very much in evidence at the recent G20 Summit, seems to be inspiring citizens' trust in government for being the natural, leading vehicle for solving global problems.

Long live the President!


"Globalization and human co-operation" by Nancy R. Buchan, Gianluca Grimalda, Rick Wilson, Marilynn Brewer, Enrique Fatasa, and Margaret Foddy.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, March 17, 2009 -- www.pnas.org 


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