Globalisation: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

In the late 20th century, "Globalise!" was a catch-cry all over the world - now it's a dirty word. But it's a story of swings and roundabouts, pros and cons...

Globalisation means different things to different people. It can mean listening to your Sony Walkman while surfing the World Wide Web in an Internet Cafe in Italy, then writing an e-mail to a friend holidaying in Malaysia. It can mean somebody working for Daewoo (the South Korean corporation) in Poland losing their job this year thanks, indirectly, to the Korean currency crash in 1997. The aftershock can last a long time - Daewoo was eventually declared bankrupt in November 2000. It can simply mean learning English, or perhaps eating sushi in Moscow made with fish from Denmark. What does globalisation mean to you?

The process of globalisation has been going on for thousands of years. It's as old as mankind itself. People have spread around the world, and trading has expanded from village to village and town to town, to the great trading paths like the Amber Route and the Silk Road, and between the continents across the high seas. However, what people usually mean when they talk about globalisation is the economic and social process that accelerated rapidly during the 1990s.

Ups and downs

The most strident proponents of this international economic policy initially came from the richest, most powerful countries. The US government made globalisation an official objective of its foreign and economic policy about eight years ago. Other western nations have been happy to play along. Naturally, most governments in the world want the economic and social benefits of globalisation. The reality now is that, to varying extents, all countries and people take part in the global economy. But do they all actually benefit from it?

In Europe, BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad-cow" disease) illustrates one problem of global culture. This disease first appeared in British cattle in the mid-1980s. Now it has spread across Europe, with recent cases found in Germany and France, among other countries. Attempts are being made to control the spread of BSE, with thousands of cattle being slaughtered, and imports of cattle products to so-far unaffected countries being stopped. Not so long ago, though, when people lived in small villages, killing and eating their own animals, such a problem was unimaginable.

The turning tide - agitate, educate, organise!

Now more and more people are speaking out against what they see as exploitation in the name of globalisation: sweatshop conditions and child labour, for example, and man-made environmental disasters. The organised movement against the negative aspects of globalisation is growing and has huge numbers of supporters and activists, not only from the poorer southern hemisphere countries in Africa and South America, but also from the North.

The most famous large protest happened in December 1999, in Seattle, USA. The World Trade Organization (WTO) conference was broken up violently in clashes between police and protesters. In the Czech Republic late last year there were big demonstrations during the World Bank meeting held in Prague. In January this year, while the annual World Economic Forum was being held in Davos, Switzerland, opponents of globalisation held the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Ironically, the main initiatives for the World Social Forum came from two Western countries - the United States and France.

One of the people at Porto Alegre was French farmer Jose Bove, who has campaigned against McDonald's in France. Bove has been called the nemesis of McDonald's! His campaign has led to him becoming a well-known figure worldwide. His fame is itself ironic, because it was our high-tech, globalised world that helped to bring him to international attention. Bove's campaign is a good example of anti-globalisation paradoxically benefitting from globalisation. Obviously, it's a double-edged sword.

Progress, warts and all

One of the best arguments for globalisation is that it can create jobs in countries which have few native investors. Many foreign companies have set up business in Poland, for example, particularly from neighbouring Germany. Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, Germany has come from being an enemy to a very important friend, especially, of course, in the last few years. Many people from Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries are also employed seasonally in Germany.

All across Europe we can see McDonald's restaurants (if that's the word for them) and take-aways, huge stores like IKEA and Tesco, Volvo and Fiat car assembly plants, and plenty more high-profile international businesses. These companies create employment and spin-off businesses that help the local economy.

But it's not just the big companies who are spreading their wings. The Internet has made it possible for smaller companies to utilise resources and do business on a wider scale. It's possible for an enterprise in one country to do business in another country. And all the while they stay right in their own office! Take an example from a website called eLance. A French industrial product supplier in France wanted to make a new website for his business, selling surplus to North Africa. Through a posting on eLance he got help from IT (Information Technology) workers in Ukraine and Argentina to facilitate his plans for North Africa.

Here to stay

As more and more countries relax their borders for business interests, they also do so to tourists, travellers and workers. All people from European Union member countries can work anywhere in the EU. More tourism can also mean more benefits if exploited carefully. Eco-tourism means that more natural environments are protected while new jobs in communities are provided.

One immediate product of globalisation in Europe is the introduction of the new currency - the euro. Nobody is sure what effect this new money will have worldwide. What is sure, though, is that through increased communication and global mobility we shall learn more about one another's cultures. This helps to break down ignorance and create more peace and friendship. At our current pace of evolution it is highly unlikely that the process of globalisation will ever be reversed. Our challenge is to find a social and economic balance that benefits all places and people in the global village.

Sandra Dempster