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8 Jul, 2007

Now Asia’s Turn to Demand Accountability & Transparency From the West

Originally Published: 08 July 2007

Two watershed events were marked virtually back-to-back over the last fortnight. The 10th anniversary of the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the half-way mark of the 15-year Millennium Development Goals campaign both provided an opportunity to take stock of the past and take a fresh look at the future.

Looking back to the economic crisis of June 1997, I recalled the language the reverberated throughout Asia as we licked our wounds. According to our accusers, we Asians couldn’t do anything right. Our values were all bunkum. Our systems were riddled with cronyism, corruption and nepotism. We needed to reform, restructure and re-engineer. We needed transparency, democracy and accountability.

Remember those buzzwords and slogans? I do, and I will never forget, because they were insulting and offensive, placing all the blame on Asia.

A lot of time, money and resources then went into fixing the mess in line with the advice of sage institutions like the International Monetary Fund, legions of consultants and financial experts.

Although a lot was done, a lot still needs to be done. But before doing anything further, it is now our turn to demand the same transparency and accountability from those who were badgering us. Asia must shake off its inferiority complex and make the West accountable for its own policy failures and disasters.

Indeed, it is in West’s own best interests to hold itself accountable to its lofty standards, because the East is getting sick of the West’s double standards. Refusing to recognise that basic truth will only buy just a little bit more time before a brewing backlash takes on a life of its own.

Note, for example, that after the 1997 crisis, currency speculators like George Soros, the hedge funds and their backers in the US Treasury as well as the IMF and the World Bank were never held accountable to come clean about their role in triggering the crisis.

In various economic forums like the World Trade Organisation, the developing countries always come under more pressure to open markets and promote investment and free trade than the other way around.

After the Iraq invasion, its primary architects and planners like Paul Wolfowitz and the Jewish neocons were never held accountable for perpetuating the Lie of the Century and the massive deaths and casualties the conflict has caused.

Nor do to Western countries ever hold themselves accountable for the biased policies that see the Middle East conflict drag on from year to year, the worst of the global geopolitical cancers and a huge waste of financial and human resources that could have been far better expended elsewhere.

The mid-point of the MDGs was an opportunity to analyse these ongoing imbalances and relate them to the MDGs – which were proclaimed at a grand UN summit in 2000, to be attained by 2015.

The primary MDG is poverty alleviation. Much progress has been made, especially in India and China, thanks to economic development policies pursued by both countries in a gradual, measured way.

But the UN says that while Asia is back on track, regions like Africa are lagging way behind, and the global gap between the have’s and have-not’s is wideing, both within and amongst countries.

As peace is a primary requisite for poverty alleviation, I asked Ms Erna Witoelar, the UN Special Ambassador for the MDGs in the Asia-Pacific at the press conference last week whether the MDG scorecard would have been better if the U.S. and the developed countries had not wasted billions of dollars in the Iraq war and whether the chances of attaining the goals by 2015 are higher if they refrain from widening the Middle East conflict by attacking Iran.

Her reply: “My answer to both questions is Yes and Yes.”

So with exactly 7.5 years to go before the MDG target year, and other factors like global warming taking on added importance, the West still has time to realise that it is not entirely blameless and that it will not be possible to fool all the people all the time.

Indeed, time is not on the West’s side. In new emerging world order, the West is becoming an ageing society and desperately seeking to salvage its fading youth.

It knows that as the world’s young people – the consumers, entrepreneurs and thinkers of the future — are in China, India and the Middle East, influencing the way these young people think is critical, be it through the media or through education systems.

The good news is that the young of the East are questioning the policies and processes of the West to find out for themselves whether simply replicating the worst of the West without tapping into the best of the East is really in their long-term interests.

Thankfully, today’s young people are better travelled, better educated and much better informed than we, the present generation of baby-boomers were during our young days.

It does not take much for them to grasp the hypocrisy of the Bush administration when the President commutes the sentence of “Scooter” Libby following his conviction for lying and obstruction of justice – a message that “cronyism, corruption and nepotism” are all just as alive in the US as in Asia, Africa, Latin America or any other part of the world.

On 4th July 2007, US Independence Day, it was hugely encouraging to attend a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on the Thai government’s plan to make patented drugs available at more affordable prices to the poor – very much in line with the MDGs – and see a crowd of young activists, both Thais and expatriates, hailing Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla as a “hero”, inspite of him being part of a government brought to power by a military coup.

It was even more interesting to see Dr Mongkol rue the “pressure” from multinational companies and governments of developed countries to protect the profit interests of the pharmaceutical giants. It was shocking to see him declining to openly identify which countries were seeking the help of Thailand to pursue a similar cause because of the backlash they may suffer.

This, at a time when Western governments and their behemoth corporations are preaching to the East about the benefits of openness, transparency, democracy and accountability!

The second half of the MDG era will be dominated by the story of how the West reacts to the rise of the East and the extent to which Western governments and societies reform, restructure and re-engineer their own policies to accommodate an irreversible turning of the tables.

How will they react when the accusers become the accused and are held accountable for no longer practising what they preach, in a betrayal of their own democratic and libertarian values?

In turn, how far will the peoples of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America allow ourselves to be continually insulted and manipulated before revolting (like Mahatma Gandhi and many other revolutionaries did) against the techniques and tools being used to assert the same control over our financial, natural and human resources as was done in the previous centuries?

The second half of the MDG era is set to prove even more interesting and challenging than the first.