Press "Enter" to skip to content

International cooperation: World remains a mess but there’s hope

Africa is, arguably, still the richest continent but her people are the poorest in the world — the world remains a mess! But there are some encouraging signs: Africa appears to be well-poised to lead the world into a better future. This view is supported by others. Michael Pilkington, for instance, believes that 2011 will be a tale of two economies: a rich world struggling with a weak and jobless recovery and an emerging world growing four times as fast. Others are predicting a clash of two forces with a sense of division and frustration, which will characterise global affairs.

In the book The Challenge for Africa Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai succinctly captures the state of Africa and that of the world when she says: “Africa is a paradox. It is one of the richest continents on the planet, endowed with oil, precious stones and metals, forests, water, wildlife, soil, land, agricultural products and millions of people.” She also states that “challenges before Africa not only stem from national and international policies but are also moral, spiritual, cultural and even psychological in nature … the condition of Africa is bound to that of the world. We share one planet and are one humanity; there is no escaping this reality”.

The review of 2010, like all the reviews I undertake in January of each following year, is generally challenging but I believe it is important to try. The interpretation of significant events — let alone choosing which events and issues are significant — and predicting the future is speculation (I have done worse: wrote about the world in 2025!). That said, there are obvious issues and events that any review I am attempting should touch on. These include: the Haiti disasters, mid-term elections in the US, the Ivory Coast political wrangling (which has not ended), Africa celebrated 50 years of independence, WikiLeaks, the Fifa 2010 World Cup etc. In terms of the issues, the main thread points to a “political sea change” — significant ideological change taking place globally. This ranges from the resurgence of government as a major player in the economy and international cooperation as answers to challenges that have bedevilled the world. Be it climate change or international trade, terrorism, leaders from various parts of the world and activists from all works of life suggest that we, as global human society, can only address the challenges if we function in unison.

The emerging coalescing forces, a view I have been developing overtime, could be accentuated not only by the realisation that we can do better if we worked together but by the obvious threats and opportunities we face as global human society. Scientists, an example of a serious threat, are genuinely anticipating end of the world “soon”. Some of the most recent concerning developments are floods in Brazil, Australia and Southern Africa and droughts in China and India — let alone the tsunamis, outbreaks, runaway fires, bomb blasts, buildings capsizing, innumerable horrific road and rail accidents and so on that the world, time and again, confronts. Humanists, an example of a great opportunity, have concluded that we can make poverty history. Where there is a will there appears to be the way, indeed. The world is emerging, faster than anticipated by many, from the recent global economic meltdown.

The practical task, fundamentally, is to turn the tide: deal with catastrophes better and end poverty. It is in this context that some of us have been advocating the so-called “global civics” — the concept that brewed while we were hosted in the Yale World Fellows Programme, a year ago; a concept (ie global civics) that culminated into a book last year. Global civics is, as we put it in the chapter proposing a “global civics” curriculum, concerned with questions regarding the rights and responsibilities of human beings toward each other in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. The editor, Hakan Altinay, describes global civics as “a system of conscious responsibilities that we [humanity] are ready to assume after due deliberation and corresponding rights that we are ready to claim”. Prof Graham Finlay and I argue, in the chapter in question, that the rights and responsibilities that global civics is concerned with are not necessarily attached to each person’s membership in a particular state or to particular international institutions. They are compatible, in most cases, with the rights and obligations one has to one’s country and do not require a world state. In some cases, however, they have come to be expressed through international agreements and agencies.

At the core of the emerging coalescing forces is the question of the so-called “second superpower” — a matter of significant debate in my international political economy class at the University of Johannesburg, as elsewhere. The question is whether government or the private sector is the most influential in shaping the world order, or is it something else. This is different from the debate whether China is overtaking Japan as the second economic powerhouse; an insightful debate but perhaps a non-issue. Interestingly, most of my students believe that the private sector, as Fareed Zakaria and Noam Klein suggest, is shaping global affairs.

Kofi Annan once said that “the new superpower possesses immense power, but it is a different kind of power … the hearts and wills of the majority of the world’s people”. It is this superpower that I think is far more powerful than the US or China or all governments combined — the New York Times, in a 2003 article, viewed “world public opinion” as the second superpower. An argument can be made that the emerging superpower that Kofi Annan spoke of, not as second superpower per se, is “public opinion” and/or “public collective wisdom and action” and it is spreading like a rumour: the recent significant case is the Tunisian uprising — the youth of Tunisia have shown the world how to bring about tangible change. Egypt is taking the baton forward! Could Venezuela be next?

Looking ahead, the emerging coalescing forces appear set to take centre stage and the political sea change will accelerate. For the continent that has been looked down upon and exploited for centuries, Africa, it might be time to show the world the way again. The local government elections in South Africa, Uganda’s presidential elections, Niger’s presidential elections, Benin’s presidential elections, Nigeria’s presidential elections, Egypt’s presidential elections, DRC’s presidential elections, Liberia’s presidential elections etc — elections taking place this year — and the South Sudan independence referendum should show the way. If elections fail, Tunisia has taught us how we, as global human society, should handle such affairs.

At the global level, looking ahead, the big issue is that the world population reaches seven billion (next year). The challenges that relate to the environment are worsening, as epitomised by floods, droughts etc. South Africa, incidentally, hosts COP 17 (the 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) later this year. As argued above, the global coalescing forces and global civics could be the only saviours of our earth. Joseph Stiglitz, in his recent lecture in Johannesburg’s Turbine Hall on global poverty, which I was privileged to attend, emphasised that ideas are among the main factors for improving the human condition.

In conclusion, the world needs — over and above public opinion/public collective action — a guiding framework. Hypothetically, once public opinion rules the world a moral compass on how we can do things and/or which things to do would be critical. “We share one planet and are one humanity; there is no escaping this reality,” says Maathai. Global civics could be that moral compass, given that challenges are also “moral, spiritual, cultural and even psychological in nature”. As the US, and the world, sadly mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, let us join hands to making this world a better place!

Frantz Fanon argued that “every generation, out of obscurity, must discover its mission and either fulfil it or betray it”. This generation, our generation, the generation of the youth of Tunisia and the world at large, has its mission cut out: it is either we fulfil the notion of global civics or betray it.


  • Vusi Gumede is a professor at the University of South Africa, also with the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. He was previously an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and he has also lectured public policy at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management (now the School of Governance) at the University of Witwatersrand. He worked for the South African government, in various capacities, for about twelve years. He serves on various boards and committees, including the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the International Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Federalist Movement and the National Council of the South African Association of Political Studies. He holds postgraduate qualifications in economics and policy studies, including a Ph.D in Economics (2003) from the erstwhile University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). He has been Distinguished Africanist Scholar at Cornell University and Yale World Fellow at Yale University, among other fellowships. He was in the boards of Southern Africa Trust and ActionAid South Africa and he is the former coordinator of Afrocentricity International for the South African chapter. He currently also holds an Honorary Professorship at the University of Cape Town. He has published 14 books and numerous journal papers & book chapters as well as written many essays and opinion articles and blogs. He is Editor-in-Chief for Africanus & Africa Insight as well as serving in various Editorial Boards/Committees.