New global order (or disorder)

Fixing weaknesses in democracy is not about less, but more democracy

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 07 July 2020

It’s a time for the world to come together. But it’s a time when the world is falling apart. It’s a time for global institutions to have a loud voice. But it’s a time when they are most feeble. It’s a time for cooperation and trust, so that local and global action can be decisive and meaningful. But it’s a time when partisan, divisive and hurtful politics are ruling — across nations and within nations. Just think.

All the crises we see before us today — from air pollution to climate change, from coronavirus to locust attacks that are now destroying the fields of farmers — are about pollutants and viruses that know no boundaries. The virus — today’s corona — jumped from animals to humans in some wet market in China. But no longer is that market in China part of the shadowy, secretive world.

The virus has moved so fast that within some six months, the entire world has been infected; over 10 million cases and counting, and no country has been spared. The contagion has already claimed over 500,000 lives. 

Worse, when you think of the prospects in the future, it is clear that countries will remain connected and live in air bubbles — closing boundaries to travelers other than “safe” countries — which will be difficult to sustain. Already, we have seen this in the United States, where gains made by states like New York in containing the virus were lost as the infection load jumped elsewhere.

It’s the same in India; it will be the same everywhere. Bubble-wrapping countries to fight the contagion will be, at best, a short-term solution. In the long-run, the world needs to come together to get rid of this virus, or at least contain it.

India’s locust problem — and it is severe and crippling for farmers — is a direct result of climate change impacts, where weather has turned weird and extreme. The frequency and intensity of cyclones has intensified; rainfall has become variable; and, as a result, breeding grounds for this desert critter have expanded.

It is fast turning into a Biblical-scale scourge. But here again, India can do little to control the problem on its own. The most fertile breeding grounds of locusts are today in the Horn of Africa, where governments are struggling with lack of finances and equipment to control insect numbers.

These will then fly with the changing wind patterns — literally — and make new homes in our world. We need regional cooperation — between countries of eastern Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Pakistan and India. We need global institutions with heft and credibility to drive this agenda — bring countries together and provide financial and technical assistance to contain the insect.

Here, I don’t even need to explain the imperative of global action on climate change — it is a no-brainer. The atmosphere is one; emissions of greenhouse gases know no boundaries. I want to stress the need for global cooperation — and trust between nations. The agreement to act will be built on nations doing what is best in the common interest of the world. This only happens when they know that the agreement is equitable, fair and proportionate.

So, trust is crucial. Yet, this word is so passé that it is hard to even write about it. But trust is where effective action boils down to — people have to trust their governments and institutions and then take the harsh actions that are being mandated for say, control of COVID-19. Otherwise, it will not work.

We are at a crucial point in world history. The key global institution is the United Nations (UN) that was set up after World War II. It then spawned many agencies and agreements. But over the years, it has made fatal mistakes — never standing up to power and death by bureaucracy and money.

Just think how the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has decided to postpone critical discussions on what is today’s, and tomorrow’s, most catastrophic global challenge till end of next year end of 2021. What an absolute abdication of its role and responsibility. We also have the powers in a dog-cat-fight for global domination — China versus the rest.

It is not about trade alone; it is also about the new global order (or disorder). Let’s not beat about the bush on this. It is clear that China has made massive inroads into the world’s economy — and this is across the poor and rich world. It has also no qualms about using fear and coercion as the means to achieving its ends.

Already, we know with COVID-19, there is the growing view that effective control on the virus only comes with strong-arm tactics and not weak-kneed democracy.

The answer, I hope, will be clear: Fixing weaknesses in democracy is not about less, but more democracy. It means investing in the local on the one hand, and global community on the other. It is about that compact that will keep the world safe; but most importantly, will keep democracy and the rights of human beings and the environment at the centre of our universe. Nothing less should be acceptable. Not now. Not tomorrow.

This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated 1-15 July, 2020)

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