Globalization and Its Discontents: An African Tragedy

Globalization and Its Discontents: An African Tragedy

If man were to begin by studying himself, he would see how incapable he is of going beyond himself. How could it be possible for a part to know the whole? But he may perhaps aspire to a knowledge of at least those parts which are on the same scale as himself. But the different parts of the world are all so closely linked and related together that I hold it to be impossible to know one without knowing the other and without knowing the whole.
—Blaise Pascal, Fragment 72

Although protest against globalization continues to mount, most of its foes’ indictments are so sweeping as to render real solutions nugatory. Undiscriminating critiques undermine the opposition and distort its purposes. This is a pity. Fringe violence aside, such protests are the only way to register serious objections to a process that proceeds under its own steam, yet generates discontents of great practical and moral importance.

To blame all developmental ills on globalization is to demonize it rather than to understand its complexities. The truth is that if one can’t live with globalization, one can’t live without it either. Its consequences are many and diverse. But the devil is in the details. And details are not the concern of most protesters.

The same criticisms apply to most supporters of globalization. Their Olympian spirit keeps their heads in the clouds. Despite professions of pragmatism, they are swept along by hubris regarding the benign effects of the market. Their market models ignore the social overhead costs of global development and its impact in real terms: population displacement and dispersion, loss of patrimonies, marginalization of sectors of the population, social polarization, fragmenting institutions, increased corruption, and criminality. Globalization poses a host of problems for education, training, and the constructive use of human talent. All this is particularly visible in Africa.

Africa is an extreme case in degree rather than kind. It illustrates many of the negative consequences globalization has for vulnerable people, with few public or private resources at their disposal and virtually no access to economic or political redress. The continent demonstrates how people can catch it both ways. On the one hand, Africans suffer from a declining share in the globalization process. This lack of participation leaves them further and further behind economically, poorer in both relative and real terms. The result is fewer political opportunities to address social needs with any likelihood of success. On the other hand, where globalization has occurred, poverty and social cleavages have been exacerbated (especially in such capital cities as Abidjan, Nairobi, or Lagos). The gap between rich and poor becomes more socially complex and politically serious. There are good grounds for asserting that however poor a country is, its rich will continue to get richer.

In short, global...