Illustration: Four hands each hold a puzzle piece in different colours that fit together.
Cultural Bonds Need Economic Bridges

The world's resources are unequally distributed – cultural change begins with tackling this inequality. It is not a case of defining the disparities but of focusing on shared challenges. But this requires the support of the super-rich.

How far can we muddle on in our growing systemic crisis before we react? There was a time when we could lament that we did not have the means, but we no longer have that excuse. If we divide the global GDP of 7.8 trillion dollars by the global population of 7.8 billion, the glaring reality is that we presently produce the equivalent of 3,800 dollars a month per four-member family. We can fine-tune this number with net national income figures, or add the built infrastructure as collective wealth, but there is no way to escape this basic evidence: what we produce in goods and services is more than enough to ensure that every inhabitant of this planet has access to the basic comforts of life. A very moderate reduction of inequality would be sufficient to deal with the major cause of human suffering and conflict on this planet. Our problem is not economic, it is a question of social and political organisation, and of deep cultural change. How can we discuss the cultural gaps we face between the different countries and overlapping beliefs if we do not place our common challenges at the centre?

A very moderate reduction of inequality would be sufficient to deal with the major cause of human suffering and conflict on this planet.

We are just humans. We are all shocked by the medieval set of values taking over Afghanistan, but the local population, for all the regional differences, has been pushed over several generations into a permanent attitude of defiance thanks to successive interventions by the British, the Russians (stimulated by the US), by the Americans. You invade a country and stay for 20 years, with the pretext of getting one man, Osama Bin Laden? Over 200,000 people have been killed in this last war alone, essentially civilians, not to speak of torture, drone killings and ridiculous public relations activities presenting ‘democratic values’. The US spent 135 million dollars a day in Afghanistan during the 20 years, with the results that we see. Can we not imagine what could have been done if that money had been used constructively? And we can imagine what Afghan parents teach their children about foreigners and foreign cultures.


How can we build Cultural Bridges?

At the centre of building cultural bridges is the capacity to step into other people’s shoes. How easily religious fundamentalism spreads, hatred towards the ‘infidel’, however prehistoric it may seem.

But can we forget what has been done in the Middle East and North Africa over generations, by the British, the French, the Italians, and more recently by the US? What has been done with the Iraq war, based on lies over weapons of mass destruction, but also in Syria in the name of democracy, in Libya ongoing, in Palestine ongoing… How do we imagine history is taught in these countries? Did Iranians forget the overthrow of democratically elected Mossadegh and the sinister repression system the West built with the Shah? Did the Indonesians forget the coup against Sukarno and the ensuing bloodbath? 

Illustration: A person with a red cape is standing on a pile of boxes and is reaching for a star.
People are conscious of inequality, illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

We do not forget the US-sponsored dictatorships in Latin America, neither does Africa forget colonialism. How would we qualify the present American corporate control over Central America? There certainly is a deep-running cultural change worldwide: people are conscious of inequality, of their inferior status.

We have all the figures on poverty, but not over how people feel about it. Throughout the world – I have worked in many countries for the UN – people know it is possible for a woman to have access to a clinic to have her baby, or to decent schools for their kids. In Brazil we face 31 per cent youth unemployment, and 47 per cent of the young want to leave the country. People are fed up, they support any politician that spouts hate speech. We are speaking of billions of stranded people.


A Global "New Deal"

There is no way of dissociating culture from the economic and social context. If we want to bridge the gap, the richer countries and their tax-avoiding corporations must look beyond the next election and the next shareholder meeting. We need solutions, not bombs or repression. How long are we going to build fences in Europe, put more ships in the Mediterranean, or build a ridiculous wall on the border of Mexico? Hundreds of millions in poorer countries do not lack initiative, they lack opportunities. Could we not consider a cultural-economic-social bridge, a world-scale Marshall plan, a global New Deal? How long will we concentrate on dealing with the consequences? Money in tax havens amounts to roughly one-fifth of global GDP, could it not be used for an intelligent purpose? The holders of these fortunes are smart, but not intelligent.

There is no way of dissociating culture from the economic and social context. 

The opportunities for building cultural bridges depend on the reduction of economic and social gaps. Poor countries will not lift themselves up by their bootstraps. A country with a 5,000 dollars per capita income, if it invests 20 per cent, and this is quite high for a poor population, will be investing 1,000 dollars per person per year to build infrastructure, scientific capacity and so forth. A European country with a per capita of income of 80,000 dollars, investing the same 20 per cent, will be investing 16,000 dollars per person per year: this simply means that the countries that should invest most, to catch up, are investing incomparably less: with the exception of China and a few Asian tigers, the gap is widening. The vaccine-deprived populations in the global South are aware of the threats. And Big Pharma is clinging to 20-year patents, an absurdity in this rapidly evolving world. In this shrinking planet, where building togetherness, trust and collaboration is essential, we are going the wrong way. No way not to remember Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly.


Global Crises as Opportunities? 

Crises can open the door to opportunities, and we are well served. We are simultaneously facing climate change, soil erosion, water contamination and shortages, bio-diversity destruction, deforestation, plastic and chemical pollution.

There is no economic reason for hunger, it is a social and political organisation issue. 

On the other hand, we are facing dramatic inequality. With the pandemic, hunger in the world has reached over 900 million, of which roughly 25 per cent are children. Food deprivation at an early age is a life-long drama. And we are building fences instead of providing food. The world produces over one kilo of grain per person per day, not to speak of other sources of food: there is no economic reason for hunger, it is a social and political organisation issue. And a humanitarian scandal. Can we not consider how a mother feels looking at her hungry children? No political democracy makes sense without economic democracy.

And we are facing financial chaos, which basically means the rich are using their money to make more money, without having to resort to the production of goods and services. To make bigger profits through low salaries, you at least had to provide jobs.


Illustration: A person is sitting on the floor with the head on his knees. Another person in a suit is walking by and is looking down on the other person.
According to the Crédit Suisse 2021 report on wealth concentration, 1.1 per cent of the richest adults hold 45 per cent of global wealth, and growing, while the bottom 55 per cent hold only 1.3 per cent, and stagnant, illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

With the global financial system, through the general expansion of debt, the money drain became in great part independent of the real economy. Dividends paid to shareholders also add to the income and wealth concentration. Roughly 80 per cent of financial papers are in the hands of the richest 10 per cent.

International debt weighs heavy on poorer countries, contributing to the drain. Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard call this ‘extractive capitalism’, Zygmunt Bauman calls it ‘parasite capitalism’, Joseph Stiglitz ‘unearned income’, Michael Hudson refers to bacteria that are ‘killing the host’. Martin Wolf, chief economist at the Financial Times, writes that this system has ‘lost its legitimacy’.

Tax Havens are Part of the Problem

Tax havens have become an essential part of this chaos: for those who think that tax evasion through tax havens is a marginal process, the Economist gives the basic figures: ‘A study in 2018 concluded that around 40 per cent of multinationals’ overseas profits are artificially shifted to low-tax countries.

The share of American multinationals’ foreign profits booked in tax havens has risen from 30 per cent two decades ago to about 60 per cent today.’ That's 60 per cent of profits, doubling in two decades. We have the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, the Pandora Papers, and we know that we are speaking of sums in the order of 15 per cent of global GDP. According to banks and asset management institutions which provide these money-hiding services, ‘tax evasion’ should rather be called ‘tax avoidance’, and some call these services ‘tax optimisation’. According to the Crédit Suisse 2021 report on wealth concentration, 1.1 per cent of the richest adults hold 45 per cent of global wealth, and growing, while the bottom 55 per cent hold only 1.3 per cent, and stagnant.

The moral of this is that we are destroying the planet for the benefit of the 1 per cent, and the financial resources that should be invested in sustainability and in productive inclusion, in order to reduce our ecological and social dramas, are basically in the financial drain industry.


The Crisis of Democracy

The crisis of democracy is linked to this dysfunctional process: too many people, even and particularly in the US, are in too critical a social and economic situation for democracy to work, and will vote for any demagogue that professes hate, whether it is Bolsonaro, Trump or Duterte.

How deep must we sink until our common humanity and need to survive takes over our cultural divides?

Hate works, there will always be demagogues, and the field at present is fertile. The winds are blowing in their sails. We are thus facing a convergence of ecological, social, economic and political crises, and the pandemic on top of this. What is emerging from this convergence is that this is a systemic crisis, and that the solutions do not depend on individual national solutions alone. Thus, we have global challenges, but different territorial cultures.

How deep must we sink until our common humanity and need to survive takes over our cultural divides? The climate change issue seems to be growing stronger roots in different countries, cultures and religions. It is already making an impact even on corporations, which have been prioritising shareholder profits rather than wider stakeholder interests, but now have begun talking about ESG. These are but first steps, basically talking. Our hope for overcoming cultural divides is to organise collaborative initiatives around the convergent different crises. In other words, use common challenges to build the cultural bridges we need.


Cultural Bridges through Mutual Interests 

Brazil's former president Lula da Silva has recently been calling for an important initiative: to build on a world scale the ‘zero hunger’ he promoted with such success in Brazil, which led the country to be taken out of the FAO hunger map.

We have the food, we have the technology, the information systems, the expertise of direct transfer of resources down to the poorest regions. And as we saw in Brazil, the costs are extremely low. The Bolsa Familia, a family programme that helped 50 million people, cost less than 0.5 per cent of GDP. In fact, if we look at the amount of money in tax havens, and at how the billionaires gain and use their money, having almost a billion suffering from hunger is simply a moral scandal. Are these hungry kids responsible for the mess we created?

Illustration: Two people are pulling at a rope.
The power of appeal of a mutual issue can bring about much wider structural change, illustration: Mohamed Hassan via pixabay

What we learned from the Brazilian experience, is that responding to a basic necessity at the bottom of the social pyramid generates a series of key parallel transformations that are essential.Having to reach the poor individually means ensuring we have the organisational capacity, contacts with communities, a cadaster that uses churches, schools, hospitals and health centres, as well as community-based organisations, resulting in a permanent support system for the poor.

This in turn makes it much easier to reach down the social ladder with health and education support, basic infrastructures, and the like. In other terms, the power of appeal of such an issue as eliminating hunger, in particular in children, can bring about much wider structural change.

In Brazil it worked, on a big scale, and we have all the expertise to bring it to global scale. It has been brought down by the same interests we see working on the global scale, but ten years (2003- 2013) of simultaneous economic growth, social progress and environmental policies show it is structurally sound and sustainable.

Tackling the hunger scandal in this rich world could be a powerful tool to bring civilisations together.

From the economic point of view, it not only costs very little, but generates more savings than the distribution costs. Improvement in nutrition results in a significant reduction in the use of health services. Consumption of basic daily goods also generates a more dynamic market of local production, with an impact on investment and jobs. It is a win-win process. Tackling the hunger scandal in this rich world could be a powerful tool to bring civilisations together.

Is this cultural? Will it reduce tensions? Not immediately, but it certainly is a bridge.

Different bridges can certainly be built according to different situations, but this goes far beyond building refugee camps and setting up a UN rescue mission. This is not quantum physics: we must bring relief to where it hurts most, on a radically new scale, and keep on bringing humanity together. This is, quite specifically, cultural change.

About the Author
Ladislau Dowbor talking on a panel.
Ladislau Dowbor
Professor of Economics and Administration at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo

Professor Dr Ladislau Dowbor teaches economics and administration at the Catholic University of São Paulo. He acts as a consultant to the United Nations, numerous governments and municipalities such as the Polis Institute, CENPEC, IDEC and the Paulo Freire Institute. His research focuses on the development of decentralised management systems, especially for municipal administrations.
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