Building Blocks for a Better World Order

The bombs falling in Gaza represent a continuation of a colonial and cold war order that must change. In this world order the US can almost unilaterally negate the consensus in favor of a Palestinian state or against an invasion of Iraq. It can manipulate financial crises to benefit those with money at the expense of jobs, schools, hospitals and human life. It can make multilateralism meaningless because it is only used by the strong against the weak. Human rights are tools to be used to justify desired ends and not a standard by which all countries are measured. 

As the images of mangled corpses and mothers weeping continue to pour out of occupied Palestine it is difficult to believe that this sorry state of affairs is coming to an end, but I believe it may be.

For decades, developing countries have been offering alternative visions and strategies for what a better world order could look like. Through alliances like the Non-Aligned Movement and the G77, poor countries have made their voices clear. Human rights – including the right to development – are non-negotiable and should apply to all countries equally. In venues like the Bandung Conference, they even began to articulate a strategy for achieving those ends that involved bigger countries leading on economic development and then pulling poorer countries along as they move forward. The strategy – imperfect as it may have been – was never implemented. Cold War politics and the reality that countries locked into colonial economic systems had few means of escape intervened.

Much more than a Goldman Sachs marketing gimmick

Enter the BRICS. Though billed as a grouping derived from a Goldman Sachs marketing gimmick, the BRICS has origins and parallels in developing country groupings such as the RIC – a strategic alliance of Russia, India and China that focused on trade, investment and military relations between the three countries. At their recent summit in Fortaleza, the BRICS released a statement that includes strong language on human rights and a strong reaffirmation of multilateralism. The statement also specifically mentions a number of African conflicts and UN treaties, including a treaty being negotiated on the use of outer space.

We may criticize the human rights paragraphs of the statement as self-serving and there may be some truth to that. We may criticize the governments themselves for human rights violations in Ukraine, Kashmir, Tibet, Marikana, and the Amazon and that would be valid. But the fact that we have countries crafting language designed at poking G7 countries (sometimes too gently) in the ribs should tell us something. It tells us that at the very least, two blocs of countries will be vying for the title of the world’s steering committee. And that may be an opening for those who would advocate for all human rights (including economic, social and cultural rights). In the right circumstances that opening could mean long-stalled multilateral negotiations on issues like nuclear weapons, climate change, and the global arms trade could reach fruitful conclusions.

Though the BRICS are asserting themselves, we are still far from such a multipolar world. On the key agreements that were expected from this summit, too few changes are being proposed. Worse yet, those are changes that don’t fundamentally challenge the status quo.

The IMF has been a fundamental U.S. tool for ensuring global subservience to the desires of international corporations and their owners. Through conditioning its lending on a neoliberal recipe for chronic under-development, the IMF kept growth rates and wages low for most countries in the world. That the BRICS planned to set up a $100 billion version of the IMF – the Contingency Reserve Agreement – was therefore welcome news.

But the CRA as it is being planned disappoints on at least two levels. First, in order for a country to access more than 30% of its share, it must have an agreement with the IMF. This seems to negate the point of the exercise, which was about allowing countries to follow development models that the IMF doesn’t necessarily approve of.

Second, at a time when these same countries are arguing in the G20 that the world must end the dominance of the US dollar as the international trading currency, BRICS countries say that for practical considerations, CRA funds will be denominated in dollars. This sacrifices the best chance for a solid challenge to dollar hegemony, which distorts economies around the world and undergirds continuing US domination.  It may be possible for the CRA to shift away from the dollar at some future point, but it would be easier and more effective to do so from the beginning.

A new development bank for an old development model?

On the other concrete announcement, BRICS countries are moving forward with plans for a BRICS Bank. Known as the New Development Bank (NDB), the institution is being heralded as an alternative to the World Bank and will have a focus on infrastructure and sustainable development.

On infrastructure, few would deny that most developing countries need better infrastructure. But infrastructure for whom and to what end? From the colonial period until today, the majority of large infrastructure projects in poorer countries has had little to do with the needs of poor or even middle class people, but is rather about ensuring foreign companies have access to natural resources and can extract them for global markets.

Too often, communities who live on or near natural wealth are worse off than they would have been without it. Even in best case scenarios, this type of infrastructure investment locks countries into a resource intensive development strategy when what is needed are strategies towards sustainable industrialization, full employment, and ultimately building national communities that respect everyone’s human rights.

Sustainable development is a more open question. From what we are hearing the definition of sustainability will be based on the Rio principles from the 1992 Earth Summit and that’s not a bad start. But how will the NDB ensure that its projects are in line with this standard without the use of safeguard policies and social and environmental protections that are seen as unwarranted conditions that impact national sovereignty?

When faced with the reality of needless suffering in places like Palestine, all of this seems far too little and far too late. And it’s not clear how the BRICS will be able to back up their political statements in the way that they have (imperfectly) formalized some of the economic ones.

But none of us – no matter where we happen to be located – are on the sidelines of this discussion. Seventy years after the world was torn apart by the scourge of near global war we are still faced with an option. Do we want a world based on domination of the strong over the weak for the profits of a few? Or do we want something better – a world where everyone is guaranteed both freedom from the fear of violence and the freedom from the fear of hunger and poverty?  It may sound grandiose, but the future of our civilization, our species and perhaps our planet depends on choosing the right answer to that question and how we choose to make it happen.