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Global solutions for global crises

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

The world will need an extra US$ 50 billion every year till 2015 to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day. A Copenhagen Consensus report suggests local solutions will not work; the prescription now is for global action

'Global Crises, Global Solutions', 2004, Ed.
Bjorn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press, UK

The world has come a long way since the 1972 UN Conference on Human Environment, more commonly known as the Stockholm Summit. In the years following this landmark event, the phrase 'Think Globally, Act Locally', coined to provide a cushion for global environmental concerns through credible local action, gained immense popularity. However, besides failing to make the global environment any better, the phrase itself has lost its contemporary relevance. The deepening environmental crisis is now reflected in the urge to achieve the ambitious Millennium Development Goals put forward by the United Nations.

From looming threats of a warmer earth to epidemic proportions of communicable diseases; from emerging global water crises to the dreadful spectre of a food-insecure world, it is now evident that both rich and poor countries alike will have to face crises on many fronts. Indeed, the world will need an extra US$ 50 billion every year till 2015 to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day. And so the catch phrase of the 1970s has become 'Global Crises, Global Solutions'. The world no longer expects local solutions to work; the prescription will have to be global. At least that's what a new report titled thus seems to suggest.

There are good intentions but no formal commitments to providing the extra billions. Any increase in overseas development assistance by donor countries is likely to be resisted as many amongst the leading 15 donor nations haven't even stood by their earlier commitment of setting aside 0.7% of their GNP towards development in the southern hemisphere. It's another matter that global military expenditure exceeds US$ 1,000 billion a year. Isn't it time the world prioritised its investments? Should limited resources not be spent in the most achievable manner?

Set up by the government of Denmark, the Copenhagen Consensus has deliberated precisely such priorities through a process engaging some of the world's top economists. Presented by the sceptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, the report lists where the world should be investing over the next few years to tide over compelling social and environmental concerns. Unlike previous similar attempts, notably the Washington Consensus, the Copenhagen Consensus was designed to accommodate at least two alternative perspectives on each of the leading submissions on the 10 most pressing global concerns, from climate change to communicable diseases; from financial instability to food insecurity; and from migration to trade barriers. The expert ranking panel put in extra time to come up with a list of priorities.

'Global Crises, Global Solutions'

Calling water and sanitation formidable social and technological challenges, Frank Rijsberman of the International Water Management Institute lists re-using waste water and enhancing water productivity as key opportunities for improving access to water supply and sanitation services. Low-cost technologies vis-à-vis institutional reforms have been listed as supportive opportunities. In his alternative perspective, John Boland from John Hopkins University in Baltimore questions the continued silence over the difficulties of adapting suggested interventions on the water and sanitation fronts to local beliefs, customs and situations. He wonders whether the stated opportunities would help achieve the Millennium Development Goal on water and sanitation. Unless the degree of implementation can be predicted, the expected change may not be achieved, Boland stresses.

But where does such analyses and priority lists lead us to? The Copenhagen Consensus does not offer any clear idea about the necessary level of extra investment. Nor does it have the authority to bring about institutional reforms across the spectrum of donors and implementers. Still, it does provide a serious and authentic analysis of global issues from the perspective of initiating debate and discussions on how the Millennium Development Goals may be achieved.

One of the significant underpinnings of any such process is to push a hidden agenda, under the garb of what is conveniently called "a paradigm shift". While the rigour of analysis might be noble, it cannot be denied that development aid of any kind does not come without strings attached. With the focus on prioritising extra investment, the phrase 'Global Crises, Global Solutions' can only justify vested interests. While it undermines local wisdom and local solutions, it conveniently puts on the table global solutions tagged with development aid. The trap is inescapable! At a global level, governments and institutions in the West are continuously re-inventing themselves to exercise greater control over matters of Third World governance. Creating intellectual platforms a la the Copenhagen Consensus is a step in that direction. Development aid can only help drive interventions. The challenge is to lay control over the processes underlying such interventions -- the designing and planning aspects. Could we not put on the table an authentic and authoritative analysis of the crises, alongside a list of solutions to choose from?

InfoChange News & Features, June 2005