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6 Dec, 2009

Cracking the culture of impunity and Asia’s culture of complacency and subservience

Originally Published: 06 Dec 2009

When Dr Nagesh Kumar, Chief Economist of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), briefed the media on year-end state-of-the-region report on Nov 30, he said that many Asia-Pacific countries will have to indulge in some serious soul-searching about their future growth and development policies.

The words “paying the price” and “learning from past mistakes” cropped up occasionally in the briefing as Dr Kumar painted a picture of a region that survived this most recent economic crisis reasonably well largely because it learnt from the mistakes of the 1997 crisis.

Dr Kumar, who took over at ESCAP last May, says he is deeply conscious of the emerging new world order and Asia’s role in it. He stressed that although Asia has no choice other than injecting massive stimulus funds in order to stave off a deeper slump, the region in the years ahead will need to both rebalance growth as well as make it more inclusive and sustainable.

To this end, ESCAP’s policy proposals now call, among other things, for a shift away from export-dependent economies and reliance on the import markets of industrialised countries towards promoting domestic consumption, boosting south-south trade and enhancing support for small & medium sized enterprises, all without taking the eye off sustainability.

In ESCAP’s committee meetings on trade, poverty alleviation and environment over the last two months, delegates have criticised the impact of Western agricultural subsidies and loan conditionalities, the role of currency and commodity speculators, the complete lack of accountability shown by the Bretton Woods institutions and the massive consumption of energy in the developed countries, the primary cause of global warming.

Although the short-term focus is to “rebalance growth”, two comments in the latest set of meetings last week highlighted the even more critical longer-term imperative to redefine growth.

Discussing the problem that comes with “commercialisation and commoditisation” of natural resources, Mrs Syeda Rizwana Hasan of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association said that the development dilemma facing Bangladesh was that “dirty industries” are creating jobs but also preventing and taking away jobs somewhere else.

She cited the example of saline water shrimp cultivation which was encouraged in the 1990s. Today, shrimp exports generate 3% of the country’s foreign exchange but have destroyed jobs elsewhere by putting 17% of agricultural land under saline water.

This salinity has affected fertility of the land and put further pressure on availability of sweet water. But, she said, no cost-benefit analysis is done as Bangladesh has to meet export targets by satisfying the shrimp demands of the consumers in the north even as “dirty industries” are shifted to the south.

Hence, the government does not implement the laws against the polluter. Calling for the development process to be driven by values and standards rather than strategies, she urged that people be consulted in all forms of development, noting that very often nobody bothers about them because they are poor.

Finally, she urged, countries “must do away with culture of impunity….sometimes we receive grants and loans from institutions which make impunity as the first condition, that no matter whatever the results of their grants and loans, they cannot (face) legal action.” She did not identify those institutions, but it does not take much imagination to know which ones.

Mr Shigeru Mochida, Deputy Executive Secretary, ESCAP, noted that the pursuit of economic growth over the last few decades has not incorporated social inclusiveness and environmental sustainability. “Growth was seen as a panacea for all social problems, while environmental sustainability was mainly regarded as an added cost or at best a competing priority,” he said.

As the primary platform for regional voices to find expression, ESCAP has long known what the problems are. For example, the need to rechannel Asia’s massive savings deposits into funding infrastructure was foreseen by ESCAP for years, but the idea of creating a dedicated infrastructure bank was stymied by the US, with tacit support from both Japan and India.

Today, one thing absolutely clear as ESCAP prepares its flagship annual economic and social report due out in March-April 2010, it is that the global millennium development goals (MDGs) will not be met by the target date of 2015.

In analysing the causes of this looming failure, ESCAP will need to frankly and forthrightly speak for the people of Asia, and identify ways to crack the “culture of impunity”. It will also need to address both the culture of complacency and subservience in Asia as well as the culture of arrogance in the developed countries.

Why should those who had the audacity to attack nepotism, cronyism and corruption in the developing countries as the source of the 1997 financial and economic crisis not be held equally accountable for causing the problems of the 2008-09 crisis?

Although speaking out firmly and forcefully is as much a political issue as a technical one, Asia’s “culture of silence” taboo indeed is being broken at the various global fora like the global climate change and trade talks where developing countries are not shying away from calling a spade a spade and demanding accountability for becoming victims of problems that they have not caused.

As learning from past mistakes is the order of the day, an indictment of the conventional wisdoms of globalisation, free-markets and their first-cousin, militarism, is long overdue.

A truly long-term, inclusive, sustainable and holistic approach to future development will mean crafting an alternative development paradigm by promoting concepts such as the sufficiency economy, gross national happiness and micro-finance.

The top-down era has to be buried and a truly bottom-up era resurrected.

In this, there is nothing better than the principles of Mahatma Gandhi, covering everything from his non-violent overthrow of British colonialism to the unsustainability of “need vs greed” economics.

The bust of one of the greatest revolutionary leaders of the 20th century, which languishes forlornly in a distant corner of ESCAP’s conference centre foyer, just a few metres away from the toilet, needs to be moved to a more dignified centre-stage position.

As the process of soul-searching on the future of Asia gathers steam, that symbolic move alone will adequately signify the start of what is set to be a long and hard battle against the “culture of impunity.”