Turkey is hosting the Fourth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) on May 9-13, 2011.
The conference brings together hundreds of heads of state, officials, private sectors, NGOs and intellectuals to address the issues of poverty and underdevelopment associated with LDCs. The İstanbul Action Plan will aim to reduce the number of LDCs, which currently stands at 48, by half and initiate a new paradigm of development aid. Spending close to $1 billion in aid per year, Turkey has recently become a “donor” country. Turkey’s aid and development model, carried out by primarily the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) but also by numerous Turkish NGOs and the private sector, is praised as one of the most rational and efficient ways of helping underdeveloped countries. It is striking that while Turkey is not one of the rich(est) countries of the world, it is hosting the UN LDC conference, while some rich countries largely refrain from even attending the meeting. The reason is primarily economic and political, but there are also larger issues that call for a serious reflection on the moral component, or lack thereof, of the existing global order.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the problems of poverty and economic underdevelopment remain powerful reminders of the imperfections of the existing global order. The level of economic development and technological sophistication has brought wealth and prosperity to parts of the world. The late modernity in which we live has transformed the way we interact with the natural world on the one hand, and with other human beings on the other. It has changed the way in which we see ourselves in the universe and claim ownership over it.
But this world is far from being just. It cannot even be said to function properly. The current global order produces more disorder and disharmony than accord and order. It privileges certain types of nations over others. It allows an extreme concentration of power in the hands of a small group of countries with hegemonic power and disfranchises the rest of the world. The “West” and the “Rest” dichotomy is fast becoming one of the defining elements of the existing global order -- an order that is still based on a Euro-centric worldview.
The political and economic underpinnings of this order produce different kinds of imbalances and injustices. From failing to share wealth to lack of political representation, it creates a sense of dispossession and alienation on the part of the vast majority of the non-Western world. The Euro-centric notions of history, culture, politics, media and international relations push the rest of the world to the margins of history, depriving them of a sense of identity and self-conscious agency. It makes them slaves of the global order with varying degrees.
We have already been disillusioned with the two promises of modernity which Max Weber had described eloquently almost a century ago: free individual and rational society. The idea that the world would become a rationally functioning global space with free and self-fulfilling individuals has long been replaced by the cruel hierarchies and unevenness of classical modernization. Development and modernization for the non-European world meant adopting Western modernity. But more often than, this happened in the most wasteful and inefficient ways, not to speak of the violence and brutality which accompanied policies of top-down modernization in the developing world.
As we move from classical modernization to globalization, we enter a new terrain. Modernization was more or less based on a Euro-centric model, controlled from a single center of power, and assumed to be predictable in its processes and outcomes. Globalization presents new possibilities. It moves in multiple directions, lends itself to multiple interpretations and allows different actors with varying degrees of power and influence to play a role. By definition, globalization cannot be Euro-centric or have another single center, say, in the Confucian or Islamic world.
Yet this is not as smooth a process as defenders of globalization think. Like classical modernization, globalization, too, presents challenges and creates hierarchies of power, wealth and influence. The reason for this is simple yet fundamental: The world as a whole never functions as one unit. Globalization has created new opportunity spaces for the less advantageous nations of the world. Poor countries enjoy certain benefits from international programs. But the global political and economic system also allows more powerful countries to exercise their influence in greater proportions, leading to different types of injustices and imbalances. Even the most successful aid programs create new forms of dependence. This has something to do with the nature of the global order in which we live.
A new global order?
The current international order is functioning without a center or with multiple centers, which amounts to the same thing. The talk about a “post-American world” is increasingly turning into a debate about a “post-imperial America” on the one hand, and the “rise of the rest” on the other. It remains to be seen how the new definitions of American power will play out in world politics, especially now after the Hollywood-like killing of Osama bin Laden. Yet one thing is clear: Gone are the times when we saw the world from a solely American or European or Russian point of view. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas is right when he says that “empirical objections against the possibility of actually realizing the American vision [for global dominance] converge on the thesis that global society has become far too complex to be controlled from a center through a politics backed by military power.”
Habermas further argues that “the self-understanding of modernity … has been shaped by an egalitarian universalism that requires a decentering of one’s own perspective. It demands that one relativize one’s own views to the interpretive perspectives of equally situated and equally entitled others.” It is questionable that Western modernity has genuinely and coherently applied this principle in the main spheres of modern culture and politics. But the fact of recognizing the existence of others is becoming an increasingly pressing reality and a political imperative. This holds true for American power as well as others that may dream of replacing the US as the next super power of the world if anything like the US power in the 20th century can ever recur again in history.
The decline in the belief of one single global power goes hand-in-hand with a search for a new distribution of power, a new axis of global order and a new set of values to support and sustain such a system. We may see ourselves as “Hobbesian realists” or “Kantian idealists”: While the latter uphold Kant’s notion of “perpetual peace” and “cosmopolitan condition,” which calls for multilateralism, diplomacy and international law, the former operate, to quote Robert Kagan, in “an archaic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable, and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.”
Francis Fukuyama’s premature prediction that man’s search for the best moral and political system has come to an end with the global spread and command of the liberal, democratic capitalism (the “End of History” thesis) has been proven wrong by the dynamics of globalization on the one hand, and the new realities of rising regions on the other. Those who advocate that “the world is flat” argue against the sustainability of any single super or hegemonic power. But this is an oversimplified analysis of how power and wealth are generated and distributed globally. The widening gap between the rich and the poor suggests abundant evidence for the continuing unevenness of the world. Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It” shows, among other things, how poverty continues to spread.
It takes more than efficient economics or aid programs to correct the fundamental flaws of the existing international system. It requires nothing less than an overhauling of our basic premises and assumptions about how a just global order can come about. One of the great temptations of modern history has been to try to construct an international order through global social engineering and assume that better planning can produce solutions for any problem. A genuinely egalitarian and cosmopolitan world-system can arise only when we overcome the hierarchies of power that define the basic parameters of international relations today. To that effect, even changing the composition of the UN Security Council and admitting two or three more countries goes far in addressing the more fundamental issues that prevent a cosmopolitan global order.
Issues of development, poverty and economic justice are not simple technical or bureaucratic issues. They are primarily moral issues with deep implications for our humanity. The fundamental question is not whether we can provide help to poor countries, but whether all human beings are entitled to what Aristotle called “good life.” The degree to which we have access to the basic components of a good life also determines the level of our civilization and humanity. This is the difference between humans who are supposed to live a good life and other living beings that simply live a “life.”
So, what is good life? Aristotle defined it as the maximum realization of one faculty unique to humans. That faculty is to reason but to reason well, i.e., correctly and properly. As a rational animal, humans are expected to live as rational beings. Aristotle further argued that the ultimate goal of human reasoning is to learn how to live in accordance with virtue. We discipline our minds to know the difference between true and false but also between right and wrong.
A rational thought that has no correspondence in reality lacks something fundamental, and this is where reason and morality join together. Virtues are the way in which we act according to the nature of things. This means to know ourselves but also the reality of things, how they stand on their own and how we relate to them. Reason and virtue combined give us wisdom in the widest sense of the term, i.e., the ability to understand and engage with the world through the eyes of reason and virtue at the same time.
Any order, whether regional or global, has to meet these basic criteria to deserve being called humane and befitting of our humanity. Good life is the right of all human beings regardless of their religion, culture, ethnicity or citizenship. This is the basis of moral cosmopolitanism and challenges the existing nation-system paradigm.
Good life, virtuous city
Elaborating on this point, the ninth century Muslim philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi articulated the notion of the “virtuous city” as the basis of a just and humane political order. In “The Views of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City,” he gives an elaborate discussion of how a political order based on reason and virtue arises out of a comprehensive metaphysics and cosmology. The goal of the political order is to enable human beings to lead a virtuous life, and this is a sine qua non for our happiness. It is an order based on principles of reason, justice, virtue and accountability. It is a socio-political system in which ethics of coexistence prevail and allow different human communities to live together to work for the common good.
The reason I brought up Aristotle and al-Farabi is because the existing global order lacks something fundamental, so much so that billions of people are still living under conditions that hurt human dignity and in some cases deprive them of their humanity. Whether we talk about human trafficking, identity-based grievances or extreme poverty, we are dealing with something that goes beyond technical programs or aid.
The growing gap between the rich and the poor of the world is an alarming indication of this. What produces wealth and what leads to poverty are issues for which we can provide alternative explanations. The way we exploit the world has something to do with the way we want to achieve a degree of material wealth and prosperity. The race for development and hyper-development is one of the defining elements of our age. Governments, international corporations, free markets, mega companies and the millions of people who make them work are all part of what we now call the global economy.
But a more fundamental moral question is what we ought to do with the wealth we have. Without denying the existence of successful programs of economic development and equal distribution of wealth, we are still lacking an ethics of sharing that would minimize rather than deepen the gap between the rich and the poor. This is a moral principle that underscores our common humanity and reminds us that there is more to our being in the world than a ruthless race for profit and interest. It stresses that we are all children of Adam and Eve and that we all share the world because none of us owns it. A higher moral principle than geography or economy or politics unites us.
The ethics of coexistence and the ethics of sharing are the two pillars on which a new global order based on justice, equality and human dignity can function. As we look at the next decade during which we want to reduce the number of LDC countries, we need to introduce major changes in the existing international order and develop a new perspective on wealth, poverty and interdependence. As our world becomes more and more globalized and interdependent, we cannot pretend to ignore that these are not our problems and that we can simply concentrate on our own national priorities. The ethics of sharing is not simply a lofty moral ideal. It has real consequences in life and can change the way we inhabit the world and deal with issues of development and poverty.
Turkey is hosting the LDC conference this year and will assume responsibility for the LDCs for the next 10 years because we believe the culture of coexistence and the ethics of sharing are absolutely necessary for a just global political order that will secure human dignity and allow a genuine moral cosmopolitanism to flourish. Turkey’s commitment to allocate to LDCs around $200 million per year, as announced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on May 9, increase investment and credit lines and help them achieve the Millennium Development Goal shows Turkey’s sincere effort to act as a moral voice in international relations. Seeking to become the voice of global conscience is a difficult yet most rewarding task.