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World View: U.N. Report - No challenge to capitalism

But for the damning up-to-date statistics it provides, the recently published 2002 United Nations Human Development report could have been written by any reform-minded political analyst with a knowledge of current and global affairs, for as could be expected there is little here that challenges the functioning of capitalist society and class-based antagonisms. The system itself is not seen as being at fault, but the distribution of political power and the workings of the myriad national and international institutions that operate within capitalism.


United Nations: head in the clouds?

The report tells us that whilst globalisation creates greater interdependence between countries and organisations, the world is far more fragmented, both between the rich and the poor, and between the powerful and the powerless. It informs us that whilst many developing countries are making progress on several fronts, for instance with regard to universal primary education, for much of the world the prospects are bleak, with progress continuing at such a small pace that it will take an estimated 130 years to rid the world of hunger.

Whilst economists hail the growth in new technologies, economic integration and new “economic opportunities”, certain perennial facts are hard to ignore, with 2.8 billion people existing on less that $2 per day and one percent of the world's population receiving as much income as the poorest 57 percent. And although the proportion of the global population living in “extreme poverty” is said to have fallen from 29 percent to 23 percent – this being accounted for by economic growth in East Asia – the number of people living in extreme poverty has risen in sub-Saharan Africa from 242 million to 300 million, with 20 of these African countries poorer than they were 20 years ago.

To halve the proportion of people living on $1 per day would take an annual 3.7 percent increase in per capita income in developing countries. However, 127 countries with just over a third of the world's population have not grown at this pace, with their share of the number living in poverty actually increasing.

Formal political equality
In a more interdependent world, argues the report “good governance”, “democracy” and “fair and accountable institutions” are essential for development. It further argues that “democracy helps protect people from economic and political catastrophes such as famines and decent into chaos” . In support of this theory, India is cited where, claims the report, there has been no famine since independence in 1947, in spite of chronic food shortages.

Democracies, it states, also contribute to political stability and wars are more frequent in non-democratic countries. These benefits of democracy are attributable to “a virtuous cycle of development”, with political freedom allowing people to campaign for policies [reforms] that expand social and economic opportunities and, all in all, allowing more people to partake in policy decisions and debates. This said, the report does then point out recent and poignant instances of people fighting for political democracy in the hope of gaining enhanced social and economic opportunities, only to have those hopes dashed. After the collapse of Soviet style capitalism in the 90s for instance, “income inequality and poverty rose sharply in Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. And despite more widespread democracy, the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa continued to increase”.

To its credit, the report does state that “neither authoritarianism or democracy is a factor in determining either the rate of economic growth or how it is distributed”. It further informs us that “granting all people formal political equality does not create an equal desire or capacity to participate in political processes – or an equal capacity to influence them”. And here the report is critical of the power money plays in politics with the USA in particular, singled out. In the 2000 US election, presidential candidates spent $343 million on their campaigns. Inclusive of spending by their respective parties, an estimated $1 billion was spent on the 2000 US election. A year later, Michael Bloomberg would spend a staggering $74 million just to become New York City mayor, $47 million more than his nearest opponent and close on $99 per vote.

The report is also mindful that politicians are “disproportionately influenced by business interests”. In the 2000 US election, corporations made $1.2 billion worth of political contributions and in India, big business provides major political parties with 80 percent of their funding – perhaps one reason why voter turn out is decreasing across the world with similar decline in political party membership in many countries.

Whilst the world is arguably a more “democratic” place than it was a decade ago, with 140 countries holding multi-party elections (the greatest number in history) only 80 of these, accounting for 55 percent of the world's people, are “fully democratic by one measure”. Moreover, there are still 106 countries that impose significant restrictions on civic and political freedoms, and in 61 countries there is no free press. Although the number of countries ratifying the six main human rights conventions and covenants has increased notably in the past decade, there still remains 41 countries who are yet to ratify the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, with 51 countries refusing to ratify the ILO's Convention on Freedom of Association

The media also comes in for scrutiny in the report, which points out that “commercial and political pressures will always skew the playing field in the marketplace of ideas”. Even so, a free and independent media is seen as an “essential pillar of democracy”. But whilst globalisation has tended to reduce state ownership of the press, it has had the effect of intensifying concentration in private ownership. In Britain, just four media groups control 85 percent of daily newspapers. In the US, some six companies control virtually all the media

Rich and powerful
In the field of health and education, some 800 million have gained access to improved water supplies and almost 60 countries, accounting for half the world's people have halved hunger or aim to do so by 2015. In the last 30 years infant mortality rate has fallen from 96 per thousand births to 56 per thousand births. On the downside, however, 30,000 children die each day of curable diseases (one every three seconds) and 500,000 women die as a result of pregnancy of childbirth every year (almost one per minute).

When it comes to international trade, the report states: “On average, industrial country tariffs on imports from developing countries are four times those on imports from other industrial countries. In addition, countries that belong to the …OECD provide about $1 billion a day in domestic agricultural subsidies – more than six times what they spend on official development assistance for developing countries.”

This imbalance is further reflected at the WTO. Whilst a lustre of democracy is afforded the running of the organisation, in truth “decision-making occurs by consensus, heavily influenced by the largest and richest countries”. And of almost 740 NGOs certified by the WTO's 1999 ministerial conference in Seattle, 87 percent of these were from industrialised countries.

Ironically, the more representative global institutions, i.e. the UN General Assembly and the UN Social and Economic Council, are similarly the least potent. “The reality,” observes the UNHDR, “is that powerful countries…tend to gravitate towards institutions that give them the most influence . . . they take their power with them: whether it be to the WTO's 'Green Room' meetings or the meetings on the IMF executive board.” Representatives from the UK, USA, Germany, France, Japan, the Russian Federation and Saudi Arabia account for 46 percent of the voting rights in the World Bank and 48 percent in the IMF.

Although this aims to be an impartial report, about political power and institutions, on the national and global level, and how they shape human progress, and whilst it is often critical of the status quo and postulates how advances in human development lie in improved democratic governance systems, it remains a report that is never going to contribute to the solving of the problems that it identifies for the simple reason that it was never going to query he premises and basic contradictions of capitalist society. The UN, as a capitalist institution itself, was never going to criticise the profit system and how it prioritises profits over real human needs and how, even in the most advanced democracies of the day, the drive to make profit impinges upon every aspect of our lives.

Whilst we would certainly not sniff at such improvements in global democracy – they would, after all, give countless millions the chance to at last determine their own future and further smooth the way for socialism – we are not to be found advocating reform of the present system. If the history of reforms teaches us anything, it is that they can easily be accommodated by the capitalist system. Democracy would thus be used by the master class to their own advantage, giving them the mandate to carry on their injustices, but in a democratic manner, and elected governments would remain as they are at present – the executives of the capitalist class.

In March of this year, at the UN Conference for the Financing of Development in Mexico, the world's leaders and policy makers assessed moves towards development and poverty eradication goals which were laid down at the UN Millennium summit of 2000, pledging a global effort to realize these goals by the year 2015. The indicators considered, the UNHD report suggests that “without a dramatic turnaround there is a real possibility that a generation from now, world leaders will be setting the same targets again”. We can only comment that even with a “dramatic turnaround” in world-wide democratic procedures, the injustices of capitalism would still prevail and the maxim of capitalism would still apply: “can't pay – can't have”.