Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Sharing the World
Interdependence and global justice

its contents
  Vol V : issue 4& 5

  Amartya Sen

  Günter Grass
  Joseph E. Stiglitz
  Meghnad Desai
  Jug Suraiya
  Sunil Khilnani
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Amartya Sen


Justice, it has been argued, should not only be done, it must also be ‘seen to be done.’ Or, more explicitly (as Lord Hewart put it in his famous judgement in 1923), justice ‘should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.’ It is useful to think of this requirement of justice when assessing the pros and cons of globalisation in general, and the particular role of interdependence in making globalisation a success. There are good reasons to argue that economic globalisation is an excellent overall goal and that it is making a very positive contribution in the contemporary world. At the same time, it is hard to deny that there is some difficulty in persuading a great many people — making them ‘see’ — that globalisation is a manifest blessing for all, including the poorest. The existence of this confrontation does not make globalisation a bad goal, but it requires us to examine the reasons for which there is difficulty in making everyone see that globalisation is ‘manifestly and undoubtedly’ good.

The critical assessment of globalisation has to go hand in hand with trying to understand why so many critics, who are not moved just by contrariness or obduracy, find it hard to accept that globalisation is a great boon for the deprived people of the world. If many people, especially in the less prosperous countries in the world, have genuine difficulty in seeing that globalisation is in their interest, then there is something seriously challenging in that non-meeting of minds. The underlying challenge involves the role of public reasoning and the need for what John Rawls, the philosopher, calls ‘a public framework of thought,’ which provides ‘an account of agreement in judgement among reasonable agents.’ Rawls’s own analysis of critical assessment was largely confined to issues of justice within a country, but it can be extended to global arguments as well, and certainly has to be so extended if we are trying to assess the ends, and also the ways and means, of appropriate globalisation. The goal of globalisation cannot be concerned only with commodity relations, while shunning the relations of minds.

Distribution of benefits

When, a year ago, the General Assembly of the United Nations requested the Secretary-General to prepare a report on ‘globalisation and interdependence’ to ‘forge greater coherence,’ they were opening the door not only to conventional questions of ways and means, but also to questions that deal with the transparency of assessments and the discernability of benefits. We have to ask, in particular, how global economic relations may be assessed in a way that the consequent understanding can be widely shared.

Having started this essay at the level of some generality, let me now take a plunge in the interest of brevity to an exercise of assessment. The achievements of globalisation are visibly impressive in many parts of the world. We can hardly fail to see that the global economy has brought prosperity to quite a few different areas on the globe. Pervasive poverty and ‘nasty, brutish and short’ lives dominated the world a few centuries ago, with only a few pockets of rare affluence. In overcoming that penury, extensive economic interrelations as well as the deployment of modern technology have been extremely influential and productive.

It is also not difficult to see that the economic predicament of the poor across the world cannot be reversed by withholding from them the great advantages of contemporary technology, the well-established efficiency of international trade and exchange, and the social as well as economic merits of living in open rather than closed societies. People from very deprived countries clamour for the fruits of modern technology (such as the use of newly invented medicines, for example for treating AIDS); they seek greater access to the markets in the richer countries for a wide variety of commodities, from sugar to textiles; and they want more voice and attention from the rest of the world. If there is scepticism of the results of globalisation, it is not because suffering humanity wants to withdraw into its shell.

In fact, the pre-eminent practical issues include the possibility of making good use of the remarkable benefits of economic connections, technological progress and political opportunity in a way that pays adequate attention to the interests of the deprived and the underdog.[1] That is, I would argue, the constructive question that emerges from the anti-globalisation movements. It is, ultimately, not a question of rubbishing global economic relations, but of making the benefits of globalisation more fairly distributed.

How fair is the share?

The distributional questions that figure so prominently in the rhetoric of both anti-globalisation protesters and pro-globalisation defenders need some clarification. Indeed, this central issue has suffered, I would argue, from the popularity of somewhat unfocused questions. For example, it is often argued that the poor are getting poorer. This, in fact, is by no means the standard situation (quite the contrary), even though there are some particular cases in which this has happened. Much depends, in any case, on what indicators of economic prosperity are chosen; the answers that emerge do not speak in one voice. Furthermore, the responsibility for failures does not lie only on the nature of global relations, and often enough relate more immediately and more strongly to the nature of domestic economic and social policies. Global economic relations can flourish with appropriate domestic policies, for example through the expansion of basic education, health care, land reform and facilities for credit (including micro-credit). These are good subjects for public discussion — for the exercise of minds — since economic understanding can be greatly hampered by uncritical and over-rapid attribution of alleged responsibility.

To rebel against the appalling poverty and the staggering inequalities that characterise the contemporary world, or to protest against unfair sharing of the benefits of global cooperation, it is not necessary to show that the inequality is not only very large, but it is also getting larger

On the other side, enthusiasts for globalisation in its contemporary form often invoke — and draw greatly on — their understanding that the poor in the world are typically getting less poor, not (as often alleged) more poor. Globalisation, it is argued, cannot thus be unfair to the poor: they too benefit — so what’s the problem? If the central relevance of this question were accepted, then the whole debate would turn on determining which side is right in this mainly empirical dispute: are the poor getting poorer or richer?

But is this the right question to ask? I would argue that it absolutely is not. Even if the poor were to get just a little richer, this need not imply that the poor are getting a fair share of the benefits of economic interrelations and of the vast potentials of globalisation. Nor is it adequate to ask whether international inequality is getting marginally larger, or smaller. To rebel against the appalling poverty and the staggering inequalities that characterise the contemporary world, or to protest against unfair sharing of the benefits of global cooperation, it is not necessary to show that the inequality is not only very large, but it is also getting larger.

The central questions have been clouded far too often by over-intense debates on side issues (to which both sides in the dispute have contributed). When there are gains from cooperation, there can be many alternative arrangements that benefit each party compared with no cooperation. It is necessary, therefore, to ask whether the distribution of gains is fair or acceptable, and not just whether there exist some gains for all parties (which can be the case for a great many alternative arrangements). As J.F. Nash, the mathematician and game theorist, discussed more than half a century ago (in a paper from Econometrica 1950, which was among his writings that were cited by the Royal Swedish Academy in awarding him the Nobel Prize in economics), the central issue is not whether a particular arrangement is better for all than no cooperation at all (there can be many such alternatives), but whether the particular divisions to emerge are fair divisions, given the alternative arrangements that can be made.[2] The criticism that a distributional arrangement from cooperation is unfair cannot be rebutted by just noting that all the parties are better off than would be the case in the absence of cooperation: there can be many — indeed infinitely many — such arrangements and the real exercise is the choice among these various alternatives.

p. 1 p. 2

Amartya Sen is Lamont University Professor of Economics and Philosophy, Harvard University.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998