Reflecting in Berlin

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the January 17, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Visiting Berlin in January—in the middle of winter—is not appealing on the surface.  It is chilly if not freezing, overcast, if not rainy.  The city is windy; the trees are bare. Tourists are fewer but beggars and vagabonds are aplenty.

In a stretch of a kilometer, on the grand avenue that is Unter den Linden, expect to be accosted every two hundred meters by a nomad from poor Europe, Bosnia for example.  Every nomad one encounters utters the same introduction: “Do you speak English?”  To fend off the beggars, beat them in their own game by telling them: “I don’t speak English,” even before they ask the question.

The cold and drab atmosphere all the more makes the visit to the Holocaust memorial or the remains of the Wall gloomy.

Yet, here I am in Berlin—gray in winter, gay during other seasons.  The occasion is to reflect.  That is, I have been invited to be part of a Reflection Group on global development perspectives, in which the preliminary meeting is held at the unfussy yet comfortable office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

The Reflection Group gathers civil society men and women, specializing in different fields, to discuss what went wrong with the contemporary world, especially post-1989 globalization, and more importantly test alternative ideas and reframe values or principles that serve equitable and sustainable development.

The Reflection Group consists of 16 global citizens from Europe, the United States, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, Ghana, India, Bhutan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. They have different backgrounds and cultures; their academic training and profession vary; their beliefs and worldview diverge.  Some wish big dreams to come true; others are realists and will settle for second-best options.  Everyone will agree to what one participant dubbed as “pragmatic utopianism.”

All the members of the Reflection Group share the same concern—they are all global citizens affected by the economic and environmental crises, the political and armed conflicts, the clash of cultures, and the ethical dilemmas.  And they all want to act and contribute to the resolution of the world’s myriad troubles.

They epitomize what Amartya Sen calls “plural identities,” bound by a common cause.  And it is a global cause.  Globalization, if we define it as the spread and diffusion of public goods like knowledge, technology, culture, and mobility of peoples and their products or services, is wonderful.

Sadly, globalization, particularly its economic sense, has been associated with many negative things such as the wearing down of sovereign states and democratic movements. Such negativism has further solidified in light of the series of massive upheavals, wittingly or not caused by globalization rules, that staggered nations and continents.

Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a member of the Reflection Group and former director at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development, has an astute observation about globalization. He notes that the term “globalization” appeared only in 1990, despite the fact that the world has been witness to globalization trends for centuries. The coining of globalization in 1990 was the upshot of what the conservative Francis Fukuyama called the “end of history,” symbolized by the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of communism.

It is in this context that globalization has become a dogma and has meant to worship free markets and liberalization.  Similarly, it is the context that makes Berlin a most appropriate choice to hold the meeting of the Reflection Group. We are now making a transition from the period of the collapse of the Berlin Wall that presaged neoliberal globalization to a new stage in which old models are being discarded while new ideas and development strategies are being debated. A Berlin being run by a socialist and gay mayor is perhaps an apt representation of the counter current.

The Reflection Group is not a one-off activity.  It aims to contribute to the global debate and influence policies and institutions for the long run. It intends to promote values, pursue strategies, craft indicators, and develop proposals for the consideration of multilateral organizations, national governments and civil society. Its guide will be the adherence to the reaffirmation and rebalancing of rights, equity, and sustainability towards achieving justice and prosperity for all.

Diversity or pluralism is the main strength of the Reflection Group. It recognizes that no single model can predict success.  It subscribes to Dani Rodrik’s view of one world having many recipes. In the course of the meetings of the Reflection Group, beginning in Berlin, we expect to contribute our own recipes and produce a cookbook that will cater to the diverse tastes of many nationalities.

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