Globalization, as many have recently noted, is in retreat. Despite all of its undeniable benefits, it has spawned problems of governance and management that have exposed the inadequacy of national governments and international institutions.
This has left people everywhere, rich and poor alike, struggling to cope with problems – from failed states to failed banks, from over-fishing to under-employment, from climate change to economic stagnation – to which globalization has contributed but cannot address effectively. Fragile institutions have given rise to a political backlash and the danger of disaster on many fronts.
Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and Vice Chair of the World Economic Forum’s new Global Agenda Council on Geo-economics, has noted that interdependence, formerly an economic boon, has now become a threat as well. “No one is willing to lose out on the benefits of a global economy,” he wrote recently, “but all great powers are thinking about how to protect themselves from its risks, military and otherwise.” Indeed, “After 25 years of being bound together ever more tightly, the world seems intent on re-segregating itself.”
Added to this “new isolationism” is the fact that governments, multi-national corporations and international bodies can often find themselves too distracted to maintain the perspective that they need to build a comprehensive problem-solving agenda. For political leaders, facing electoral calendars or other short-term pressures, “long-term planning” can mean just four years, or even less.
Likewise, private-sector managers and company directors have to meet annual or quarterly profit targets, sometimes at the expense of their firms’ longer-term best interests – to say nothing of the well-being of society as a whole. Academics can be adept at identifying problems, but they often struggle to win the full attention of decision-makers and may be subject to legal, financial or political constraints. And, though regional and global international organizations have had some notable successes, they are too often paralyzed by national rivalries and a shortage of money.
Yet interdependence is undeniable. From carbon dioxide and internet governance to depleted ocean fisheries and corporate tax avoidance, many of the world’s problems today are innately transnational. The current Ebola outbreak that is ravaging much of West Africa and threatens to spread elsewhere is yet another stark example of this.
Clearly, the world’s 7.2 billion people need not only new ideas, but also new ways to build consensus that involve all stakeholders in moving the best ideas from theory to practice. None of the many issues identified, both within and among states and societies, can be addressed effectively without thorough and continuing consultation across the spectrum of stakeholders.
Here, thankfully, there is some good news: The world is not short of intelligent people. Governments, corporations, civil-society groups, academia and international organizations are full of experts who can, when brought together, achieve a critical mass of insight.
Moreover, modern communication tools mean that ideas and good practices can be disseminated worldwide at unprecedented speed. Multinational corporations and villagers alike can share the fruits of progress. For example, the mobile-phone-based microfinance and banking system known as M-Pesa has spread in various forms across and beyond East Africa, where it originated.
Meanwhile private and public laboratories worldwide are incubating technologies and materials with which the future will be built. From messenger RNA therapeutics to the mining of metals from desalination brine, new research and development promises new opportunities for progress.
The world is full of ideas – many of them excellent – in technology, sustainability and governance; unfortunately, the capacity to build consensus and to roll out effective programs is much rarer. No one doubts that ideas are the fuel of human progress and development. With fragmentation threatening to replace globalization, the urgent need now is to share concepts, insights and good practices that can bring people together and head off dangers.
The 2014-2016 Global Agenda Councils, 86 groups of experts, each focused on a pressing global issue, an industry, or a region, began work this month.
Published in collaboration with Project Syndicate.
Author: Martina Larkin is head of the World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils.
Image: A man carries an inflatable earth balloon along West 72nd Street during the People’s Climate March in New York, September 21, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar.