An Era of Global Turbulence

Martin Khor

When the Cold War ended two decades ago, people throughout the world looked forward at last to a period of peace.

A political scientist wrote a book predicting “the end of history”. Conflict between ideologies and big powers was over, as those advocating the free market and democracy had won.

The illusion of the end of conflict is over. Last week, at the annual summit of the United Nations, “global turbulence” was much the theme of the leaders gathered there.

The turbulence is now prevalent in the political and security arena, and also in environment, as highlighted at the Climate Summit on Sept 23.

There is the exponential growth in Ebola cases in West Africa. And turbulence also well describes the on-going financial and economic crisis whose shadow is now falling on developing countries.

“This has been a terrible year,” declared UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in his opening speech. “From barrel bombs to beheadings, from the deliberate starvation of civilians to the assault on hospitals, UN shelters and aid convoys, human rights and the rule of law are under attack.”

The crises he mentioned included the tragedy in Gaza, the volatile situation in Ukraine, the thousands killed in the political war in South Sudan and the conflicts in the Central African Republic, Mali, the Sahel and Somalia; and in Iraq and Syria where “we see new depths of barbarity with each passing day, and devastating spill-over effects” across the region.

The Secretary-General continued: “This year, the horizon of hope is darkened. Our hearts are made heavy by unspeakable acts and the deaths of innocents.

Not since the end of the Second World War have there been so many refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers.

“Never before has the United Nations been asked to reach so many people with emergency food assistance and other life-saving supplies. It may seem as if the world is falling apart, as crises pile up and disease spreads.”

Saying that today we face far more man-made crises than natural calamities, he called on the assembled leaders to show leadership and act.

Western leaders, especially United States President Barack Obama, stressed the need to counter the threat of Islamic extremism, with the current focus on the Islamic State (IS). Early last week, Obama had ordered strikes on many IS targets in Syria.

However, some also questioned the legitimacy of the bombing, as well as double standards in the handling of terrorism and breaches in international law, citing for example the killing of Palestinians in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, without action taken against Israel.

Climate change and Ebola emerged as two big issues during the week.

On Sept 23, Ban Ki-Moon convened a Climate Summit with over a hundred top political leaders attending.

The day before, over 300,000 people marched through New York, with many groups demanding not only action but also “climate justice”.

It was the biggest climate-related demonstration ever, showing the public’s impatience with the lack of serious governmental action despite increasing evidence of extreme climate events.

Leaders pledged actions to cut or slow down emissions, but these were mainly repeats of old promises, and largely inadequate. And only three European leaders pledged substantial money for the Green Climate Fund, which in total (around US$1bil [RM3.3bil] each) was far below the US$100bil (RM330bil) a year target promised four years ago.

The Summit gave prominence to the private sector and the actions and investments they would voluntarily make if incentives were given to them.

Questions were raised if the developed-country governments were trying to escape from having to take stronger action against the market forces causing the climate problem, as well as from their commitment to fund developing countries.

At the end of a day of packed panel discussions involving presidents, prime ministers, business tycoons, bank CEOs, scientists and a few film stars (Leonardo de Caprio, Li Bing Bing), Graca Machel (the widow of Nelson Mandela) challenged the leaders in a closing speech.

“There’s a mismatch between the magnitude of the problem and the response today,” she said.

“Millions took to the streets. If this is what we’ll give them as a response, is it enough? Each of us has to go back to the drawing board … Look at the pledges and ask if you are matching that challenge.

“It’s not about profit but our survival and well-being. You need the courage to make decisions unpopular with some thousands but for the good of the millions … You the need the courage to regulate, and the change in technology has to be mandatory.

“Listen to the people, they are the ones with the vested interests for change.”

I also attended a session on the Ebola threat on Sept 25, where Obama, European Commission chief Barosso, the World Bank president, the Japanese prime minister and ministers from Cuba, China, East Timor, Nigeria, Germany and the United Kingdom were among those who pledged to support the most affected countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The presidents of these three countries spoke of how the Ebola crisis had overwhelmed their societies as the already frail health care systems collapse.

The difficulty of treating the problem was highlighted by the Liberian president. “We have an extended family system where we take care of the members and are at the side of the dying. We succumb to anger if we are told not to touch our sick child or bury our dead.”

Already 1,700 have died in Liberia, including almost a hundred health workers. It is estimated that Ebola cases are doubling every two to three weeks.

Obama warned that if unchecked, Ebola may kill hundreds of thousands in the next months. The World Bank president said it was the worst epidemic he had seen and the response should be what’s needed and not what is possible.

The great fear is that if the deadly disease (the death rate is one out of two infected persons) is not checked, it may eventually affect the whole West African region and transfer to other parts of the world.

As the meeting showed, the UN can play the valuable mobilising role when a crisis like this takes place. But the response has been much too slow, and has now to be scaled up 20 times.

Joanne Liu, the head of Doctors Without Borders, which has been in the frontlines and been sounding the alarm bells for months, told the meeting that the promises made have not been delivered so far, aid workers are exhausted, fear has taken over, infection rates double every three weeks, health systems have collapsed, the sick are turned away and they go home and make their families sick.

“Response has to be hands-on, don’t cut corners, there’s huge organisational difficulties, the UN cannot fail … There’s political momentum today and as world leaders you will be judged,” she said.

Admiration for health workers and administrators on the ground is evident, since they themselves face high risk of contracting the disease.

These two concrete issues – climate change and Ebola – highlighted last week in New York show not only the extent of the growing environmental and health crises, but also that there are many people who care and are willing to fight for a better world.

This response from the ground helps create the public opinion and pressure that pushes political leaders to act.

In this era of turbulence, there is thus the fight back against the otherwise depressing trends. As Machel warned, however, we are very near the precipice and may fall over very soon. The response from political leaders is so far inadequate to the challenge, and must be stepped up.

Originally published in The Star.

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