Three monumental events of 2013: Rich and poor

Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

(Last of two parts)

In selecting events of 2013 likely have major impact on future global trends, one had to look at not just current news, but the long-building factors that led to the seminal developments—and will drive expected changes in coming years and decades.

For the first two events, Christianity’s burgeoning congregations in the Third World offsetting its decline in Europe, on the one hand, and China’s economic and geopolitical rise in recent decades, on the other have brought forth the election of Pope Francis, the first Supreme Pontiff from developing nations, and China’s challenge to Superpower America under President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream ideology.

So it is with the third future-recasting event: the World Trade Organization agreement concluded in Bali on December 3-7, which aims to facilitate trade through greater clarity, efficiency and transparency in customs processes affecting the flow of goods through air and sea ports. The WTO deal also adopted interim policies allowing state funding of food security programs, rather than banning it as subsidy, as long as the financed produce isn’t exported.

If that package of agreements after a dozen years of negotiations doesn’t seem monumental at all, that’s precisely the point. Begun in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, the first global trade talks since the WTO founding in 1995 (after decades as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT), the Doha Round was supposed to liberalize trade in agricultural products as well as services, and formulate and enforce rules on intellectual property and cross-border investment.

A tough future of global cooperation
That little of the Doha agenda has been achieved, and the round itself was suspended in 2008 and barely revived this past year, points to the challenging future of global cooperation. If negotiations widely seen as boosting world economic output by trillions of dollars are crawling, how can other global talks on less lucrative or even wealth-diminishing issues make headway?

In fact, that’s exactly the scenario in another major planet-wide discussion: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw last month, just when Typhoon Haiyan ravaged Central Philippines killing more than 6,000 and flattening cities and towns in the Visayas region.

While there were steps taken toward a possible agreement on global funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation, huge disagreements remain, including one over the latest demand by developing nations to compensate countries hit by global warming consequences, like super storms, severe droughts, and new diseases.

Separate from the long march to a climate change deal, the bigger concern is whether any commitments would be substantially complied with. That didn’t happen under the 1992 Rio Conference on global warming and its follow-up meeting in Kyoto five years later. Indeed, the United States did not even formally adopt the Kyoto Protocol, and climate change efforts fell well below targets.

When No. 1 and  No. 2 meet No. 3
As it had been in decades of trade and other international negotiations, the challenge invariably boils down to whether rich and powerful countries can join hands with the developing world. And this is where the previous two world-shaping events dovetail with the third.

With Pope Francis giving high priority on uplifting the less fortunate, and China seeking global stature, if not leadership, expect both the Catholic Church and the Chinese nation to lend their voices and clout to the clamor for greater assistance, concessions, and protection for nations left behind by global progress and suffering the harsh ecological consequences of unbridled economic growth.

The Doha Round’s banner issues of agriculture, services, and intellectual property cut into such basic concerns of poverty as rural incomes, food and medicine prices, and domestic transport. As always, jobs, too, are at stake.

And as several years of super typhoons have shown in the Philippines, the rickety living spaces and shaky livelihoods of the poor bear the brunt of calamities. Concluding just and caring agreements on global commerce and environment are indispensable for truly safeguarding and liberating the destitute.

Can rich and  poor join hands?
So after millennia of empire building from Mesopotamia and Han China to the New World, then decades of capitalist-communist Cold War after the unshackling of countless colonies, the paramount point of contention for the world is once again how haves and have-nots will share resources and opportunities, and what responsibilities the well-off have toward the impoverished, especially those dislocated and endangered by the unintended environmental impact of wealth creation.

Fudging somewhat the rich-poor dichotomy are envisioned regional free-trade blocs like the trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic mechanisms pushed by the United States with Asia and Europe, and the Regional Economic Cooperation Program (RCEP) to link Asean, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Since these economies are mostly affluent or well on their way there, there is less of the income divide, and more of the generally well-off getting together to preserve and grow their wealth.

But huddling together with fellow affluents does not make the needy world outside disappear. Rather, it simply enlarges the gaps between wealthy blocs and the poor regions excluded. Moreover, there are no regional environmental groupings able to conclude separate deals on global warming. Eventually, the planet-wide disposition of resources and mitigation and adaptation for climate change must be faced.

Millennial Church and China to the rescue
In this challenge of the ages, it is most fitting that the two millennial institutions of humankind, Christianity and China, may well come together as allies in pushing the world’s wealthy to a caring compromise and commitment for the upliftment and protection of the poor.

Just as its central figure Jesus Christ had admonished to care for “the least of your brethren,” Catholicism, especially in the Papacy of Francis, has stood up for the destitute for throughout its history. In its rivalry with the United States, meanwhile, China gains from standing up for developing nations.

Will the wealthy West make compassionate compromise with the have-nots of the world, prodded by both the Catholic Church and the Chinese state? Let’s pray that after thousands of years, Christianity and China have learned that progress is never truly achieved if so many are left behind, and can teach that truism to the rich.

(The first part was published this Monday, December 23.)


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