After the horrific destruction in the 20th century in two World Wars — the second ending with a wanton display of scientific progress and the destruction of thousands of innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the victors of the wars vowed “never again”. A new breed of global institutions was created to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, rebuild shattered economies, and maintain global peace. These were the United Nations headquartered in New York and the Bretton Woods institutions — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — in Washington. Power in these institutions was retained by the victors: in the UN in the five-member Security Council, and in the World Bank and the IMF by the United States and Europe who appoint their own at the top. The UN General Assembly is theoretically democratic. But the real power, of guns and money, is controlled by the Security Council and Washington institutions. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is back in the picture to keep the centre of gravity of global power in the West.
A fresh concept
The power struggle has heated up in and around Ukraine, camouflaged as an ideological war between democracies and dictators. All countries are expected to declare whose side they are on. Institutions of global governance which were supposed to guarantee peace have failed. Clearly, new ideas for global governance are required. A new concept of “inter-generational justice” is gaining traction as a better way of producing a more equitable global order and, hopefully, arresting mankind’s breakneck destruction of the planet despite — or because of? — great advances in technologies.
The answer to the rhetorical question — what sort of world we want to leave for our grandchildren — is to ask them what sort of world they want to live in. Older generations listening to younger generations, rather than younger people following their elders, may be a radical civilisational shift. However, elders listening to youth will not be enough. Youth must also be given charge of producing the world they want to live in. They cannot leave solutions to the older generation whose ways of working have caused these global problems. The problem is that if youth apply the same old ways which are being taught in universities and also learned where they work, they will make global problems worse.
Time is running out
The modern approach to progress, disseminated widely through “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education, is to extract resources from the planet to create new products for human benefit. And then to find new technological approaches to repair the damage caused to the planet by those technologies. Thus, scientific technology goes round in circles. On each round, owners of technologies become wealthier. The people suffering the harm from a relentless growth of economies are advised to be patient until the size of the pie produced is large enough to share with them. Time is running out. The climate is heating up. Inequalities are growing. People are losing their patience. New ways must be found to solve complex global problems.
A new theory of change
The prevalent scientific theory of change is both “outside in” and “top down”. Scientific experts try to be “objective” about the systems they study by placing their minds outside the systems. From their supposedly objective perches, they try to map the systems’ shapes detachedly. Like engineers, they look for levers within systems they can pull to improve efficiency and increase outputs. However, this way cannot work in socio-ecological systems. Because, in them, unlike in machines designed by engineers, social scientists and economists are situated within the systems they wish to observe objectively. Unlike ‘scientific’ design thinkers who try to design systems ‘objectively’, natural systems thinkers learn to live with and within the systems that give them life. They do not feel the need for rockets to take them to other planets after they have spoiled this one.
The global approach to governance is “outside in” and also “top down”. Many disciplines must be brought together to understand the social, economic, and physical facets of complex issues such as climate change. Moreover, stakeholders with conflicting needs must be aligned. Therefore, central coordination seems essential for large-scale change. This is the standard model of a hierarchical organisation, which is applied in the corporate sector, in national governments, and in international development organisations too.
The problem is this is the wrong approach for solving complex global problems. Because experts, remote from the diverse ways in which these complex problems manifest themselves on the ground, are not equipped to find effective solutions for large-scale outcomes. Since standard, “one size”, solutions cannot fit all, not only do their solutions not work well but trust also breaks down between the leaders on top of large international organisations (and the experts who advise them) and people on the ground. This is a principal cause of the rise of populism and revolts against “the Establishment” of ideas and institutions governing the world.
A new configuration, the G7, was formed in the 1970s when the Bretton Woods institutions seemed unable to prevent the global economic crisis caused by large “oil shocks”. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy formed the G6. Canada and later the European Union, joined later. Russia was invited later (G8) when the Soviet Union collapsed and was swiftly removed in the Crimean war (2014). China, now the second largest economy in the world, was never included. The G7 was expanded to the G20 in the 1990s, when China, Russia, India, Indonesia, and other large economies were added. And now the G20 is being cracked up because the G7 wants to throw Russia out. India will be the chair of the G20 this year and must try to keep the group together.
Power must shift between generations to create a more equitable global order. Less than 10% of the world’s citizens, and less than 6% of the world’s children below 10 years, are in the G7. Power must shift within economies from older persons to youth. Globally, it must shift from the older, so-called ‘advanced’ countries to younger ‘emerging’ economies. The G7 and the Security Council must invite the rest to find new solutions for global problems.
Recycle this wisdom
Inter-generational dialogue is imperative. Though all countries are aging, older persons in economies are not burdens to be cast aside. Already the numbers of older persons in the world exceed the numbers of children below five years, and will soon exceed the numbers below 10. Older persons are humanity’s fastest growing yet least used resource. While power must shift towards younger generations and emerging economies, all generations and countries must work together. All are stages in a larger process of evolution. All must listen to others’ aspirations and must understand others’ wisdom. Emerging economies must not be arrogantly considered, in the colonial legacy, as a ‘white man’s burden’ to be improved by a more advanced West. Many native communities have not yet lost their wisdom of living within natural systems and living as families and communities. Such wisdom on the ground needs to be cycled to the top to save the world for everyone.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals list 17 complex global problems. They appear in different forms everywhere in the world. Centrally managed organisations cannot solve such problems. Local systems solutions, cooperatively implemented within their communities by old and young persons together, are the way to solve these global systemic problems.
Arun Maira is Chairman, HelpAge International