Myriad views on globalisation

Print edition : November 08, 2002

Globalization and Development Studies: Challenges for the 21st Century edited by Frans J. Schuurman; Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2001; pages 211 (paperback), Rs.275.

THIS book deserves attention for three reasons. The editor himself and several other contributors to the volume are from the University of Nijmegen, the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University, all in the Netherlands, whose writings may not be familiar to readers in India. Second, globalisation and development are usually considered to be the specialities of economists. None of the contributors to this volume claims to be an economist (there is one who has been working as a development economist, but is an anthropologist by training). Most of them are anthropologists and sociologists, and from a couple of other social sciences. Hence the nature of discourse about globalisation and development is different, free from the usual clichs of economists, but situated within the "modernity-post modernity" jargon of anthropologists and sociologists.

Third, and most important, is the theme, an attempt to see the impact of the more recent phenomenon of globalisation on the more familiar subject of development and development studies. On the theme itself the difference of approach between the economists and those from the other social sciences is clear. Economists want precision even when they are wrong! There may be differences of opinion among them, but each one is adamant about his or her position. The approach to globalisation in this volume is different. In his essay, Schuurman refers to as many as nine different views on globalisation. The point he brings out is that what is usually referred to as globalisation is not a phenomenon in itself, but discourses about a phenomenon. So his taxonomy is not of globalisation, but of what he calls "glob-talk", indeed of glob-talkers whom he identifies as "cyberspace globalists", "neo-liberal globalists", "neo-Marxist globalists", "non-globalists" and so on. Unfortunately, what could have been seen as a spirit of accommodation of diversity or difference is negated by the fact that the first on the list are claimed to be "true globalists"! But elsewhere in the volume too the necessary and important distinction between a phenomenon (or event) and the discourse about it is brought out. It is pointed out (page 166), for instance, that the exclusion of certain groups of people because of globalisation is a fact (something that is truly experienced) but that exclusion and inclusion can also be achieved by the manner in which terms and categories are defined. This distinction is something that has become clearer to this writer by going through some of the articles in this volume.

In order to take up the treatment of development and globalisation, it is first maintained that development which, in its initial stages in the 1950s was very much part of the modernisation discourse, has entered a post-modernist stage. At the end of the Second World War, when a number of former colonies emerged as independent countries with membership in the United Nations, it was felt that something should be done for the development of these nations. Initially they were referred to as "backward" countries, but soon the politically more correct expression, "underdeveloped" countries, began to gain currency. (The now more familiar "Third World" became common much later.) Their underdevelopment was attributed to population pressures on the one hand, and lack of capital (because of the inability to generate capital) on the other. With increase in population curbed and capital made available via foreign aid, it was expected that these countries also could reach the modern age of sustained progress which the "advanced" nations had entered a century or two earlier.

But development studies soon questioned this unilinear, homogenising modernist approach to development. A distinction was drawn, fairly soon, between overpopulated and underpopulated underdeveloped countries. Then the difference between larger continental economies such as India and small island economies was noted. And although the common themes of underdevelopment as having been caused by colonial domination and hence development as emancipation came to be widely accepted, the accent was on discovering differences and emphasising heterogeneity features said to be the essence of post-modernist discourse.

That being the case, globalisation poses a new challenge to development studies. This is partly because globalisation appears to be a return to the unidirectional and homogenising ethos of the discourse of modernity. Also, development is deeply anchored in the role of the state, the nation state, whereas globalisation is said to result in the weakening of the state, definitely in economic matters. Hence the problematic: how to reconcile development studies and the emerging globalisation tendencies?

THE ten papers in the volume, divided into two parts with a brief introduction provided for each, deal with different aspects of this problem. The papers discussing environmental issues and the mega cities of the world show what studies on globalisation and development have in common. Two papers dealing with gender issues, on the other hand, critique both globalisation and development for their lack of appreciation, even awareness, of the specific problems that recognition of gender as an analytical category necessitates. One of them, emphasising the feminist perspective, says: "... Gender operates at the level of ideology by valourising certain social institutions, actors, practices, and processes that are associated with men and masculinity at the expense of others that are associated with women and femininity. Feminist theorising is centrally concerned with breaking down or deconstructing this hierarchical dualism of masculinity/femininity which constitutes an ordering system that determines what is deemed of value and what is not" (page 139).

Two attempts are seen in the volume that may enable development studies to handle new problems posed by globalisation. The first is to note the dialectical relationship between the global and the local. Some interesting instances are cited. The Maya tribes in Mexico now use Coca-Cola as a sacred potion in their religious rituals (page 157)! The Mexican government's structural adjustment policies of the 1980s had marginalising effects on local rural communities. Another global phenomenon also hit them at this time the failure of the rain over a number of years caused by the `El Nino'. One of the communities responded to this situation by experimenting with different farming methods. They rediscovered some of the very effective traditional methods used by their ancestors and recontextualised these within a modern market system. The efforts led to "a way of life that is not only economically viable, but dignified, existentially satisfying, and which allows their culture, their identities and their collective self-understanding to flourish" (page 54). If globalisation, therefore, can be approached in terms of real life narratives, it may be possible to see that it has ingredients that may stimulate, rather than destroy, local heritages and initiatives.

The second attempt has been to suggest universalism as a broader concept than globalisation. Two universal human needs are recognised. The first is the set of basic material needs for food, shelter, comfort and so on. The second is the peculiar existential need of human beings "to generate satisfying collective narratives of meaning and orientation". If these two are accepted as the basic ingredients of development studies, globalisation poses no threat at all. But, of course, problems and tensions will persist. As against this benign view of universalism, there can emerge a "vicious universalism" that suppresses all local diversities and, like globalisation itself, constantly seeks for uniformities and asserts homogenisation.

Hence let us note, once again, that social phenomena, globalisation, development or whatever, may present problems of their own, but there is the equally important aspect that since these phenomena are bound to be complex, the discourse about them the way they are described, defined and so on can confound the problems. This is a sound and timely warning to those who claim to be observers and interpreters of social problems and issues.

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