Book Review: When Worlds Collide

Three thinkers offer three drastically diffErent solutions to today's global inequities.

The Live 8 concerts, broadcast internationally to an estimated audience of three billion and dedicated to pressuring western political leaders to tackle poverty in Africa, dominated the headlines earlier this summer. For a while at least, the 10 shows, which relied on a global logistics team using advanced telecommunications technology, and on media outlet co-operation worldwide, appeared to strike a chord, and united citizens far and wide to support an undoubtedly important cause. But after the Pet Shop Boys took the stage in Moscow's Red Square, and after crowds swayed to Neil Young in Barrie, Ont., how much was there left to cheer about? Because, although it's easy to agree that ridding the world of poverty is a worthwhile goal, just how to achieve that goal is clearly a much thornier proposition.

Against this backdrop, new books from three global thinkers, dedicated to understanding the world we live in and suggesting ways to create a more equitable planet, can be found on store shelves. Their recommendations, not surprisingly, are drastically different. While Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $38.50), suggests that integration is the key to global prosperity, John Ralston Saul argues nearly the opposite in The Collapse of Globalism (Viking Canada, $36), proclaiming the death of globalism as a good thing and reasserting the need for national power. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sachs's The End of Poverty (Penguin, $40) posits that if rich countries would just increase foreign aid budgets, abject poverty would be eliminated.

None of these tomes makes for light summer reading, but the most compelling of the three is Friedman's. In The World is Flat, Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, argues that, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, geopolitical change and technological innovations like PCs, the Internet and workflow software have resulted in an explosion of creative cross-border businesses and an increasingly “flat” playing field for commercial actors worldwide. Friedman's tidy description of the 10 flattening forces lays the groundwork for a provocative analysis of how America (and, by extension, Canada) can thrive in a world led by companies like HealthScribe India, a Bangalore-based firm that relies on satellites and digitization to provide transcription services for doctors working in the United States.

While Friedman seems thoroughly convinced that greater trade and economic integration grows the global pie, upping standards of living everywhere and reducing the chances of war, the challenge lies in reconciling the benefits of a streamlined global marketplace with the immediate chaos that factors like outsourcing can cause locally. In Friedman's eyes, the rise of countries like India and China represents the beginning of an era in which the only way westerners can compete is by turning themselves into “untouchables”–people whose jobs cannot be outsourced.

Friedman doesn't suggest the transition to a globalized economy–or a globalized society, for that matter–is straightforward. He acknowledges the difficulties of bridging cultural, political and legal divides, and the fact that, at times, the new world order produces absurd results. Case-in-point: in 2003, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., an Indian consulting firm, won a multimillion-dollar contract to upgrade the claims-processing system of the unemployment department of the state of Indiana. The deal caused an uproar because, while it saved Indiana taxpayers US$8.1 million, it also cost local jobs. A modern conundrum.

But Friedman's deep-seated belief that the forces of globalization are both desirable and unstoppable, and that intertwined economies are the great leveller, is a constant. The book's one weakness stems from Friedman's American bias. Despite his admiration for the flat world, he's adamant the U.S. ought to “dominate the twenty-first century the way it dominated the twentieth.” But if collaboration is the key, why should anyone dominate?

Meanwhile, in The Collapse of Globalism, Saul suggests that the trade liberalization mantra has run its course. He doesn't want privatization, deregulation, tax cuts or shrinking governments; nor, according to him, do the scholars and policy-makers who once sang their praises. Apparently awakened to the reality that market reforms alone do not provide peace and prosperity, the governing orthodoxy, he argues, now embraces details like democratic transition and the rule of law.

Saul's key frustration is with people and institutions that advise that, as long as the commercial ties between countries are solid, everything else will fall into place. He goes on at some length about the importance of good governance and proposes a heightened focus on public goods as the only way to ensure justice for all. Moreover, Saul disagrees with the sentiment that borders should take a back seat to commerce. He points to recently reborn nation-states like Ukraine, Bulgaria and Latvia, whose people are reluctant to give an ounce of sovereignty over to a global system, and predicts the re-emergence of powerful nation-states as critical to the maintenance of a fair and balanced world.

While Friedman and Saul view the world through very different lenses, they hold in common a tendency to focus on the West and BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China). In Sachs's The End of Poverty, the emphasis is reversed. Here, the American economist, who is also the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, focuses on the poorest of the poor, laying out a bold, detailed plan for abolishing extreme global poverty by the year 2025.

Outlining the plight of the 1.1 billion people, most of them in Africa and Asia, who get by on, at most, one dollar a day, Sachs argues that if the wealthy world would pony up between US$135 billion and US$195 billion per year in foreign aid over the next 10 years, and continue giving for 10 years after that, abject poverty would be stamped out. He attributes entrenched poverty to geographical bad luck, poor infrastructure and poor health care, and dismisses corruption or culture as possible culprits. Sachs is a fan of free markets, but he argues that market forces alone are not enough to help, say, an isolated village in Kenya grow out of poverty. He suggests the key is investments in agricultural inputs, basic health, education, power, transportation, safe drinking water and telecommunications.

Sachs's experience turning around stumbling economies is impressive. He's not shy about it, either–the first half of the book is an autobiography of sorts, detailing his accomplishments dictating monetary policy and fiscal restraint everywhere from Bolivia to China. Reading Sachs's carefully crafted plans, complete with diagrams and budgets, one wants to have faith in the theory–that if only our political leaders would fork over the cash, poverty could be eradicated. Yet it's hard to believe; the technocratic approach seems at odds with messy reality.

Each author calls upon a different set of characters to prove his point. Friedman relies heavily on interviews with businessmen whose cross-border ventures are booming; Saul illustrates his perspective with historical examples and comments from politicians and World Bank types. Sachs, on the other hand, invokes personal anecdotes, academic studies, maps and photographs for impact. Ultimately, it doesn't seem like one book has nailed it. Instead, while addressing the common theme of global inequity, each volume shines a spotlight on a different corner of the complex global landscape. In this case, it's only by considering each approach that a full-colour portrait of our times is revealed, and the need to embrace a variety of strategies in order to set the best course exposed.