Some Real Street Smarts

By Fareed Zakaria.
July 30, 2001 Newsweek

The protesters deserve credit for highlighting the problem. Pity they hate the solution.

The protesters in Genoa were correct about one very big thing: they were in the right place. The great political issues of our times are those surrounding globalization. And the meeting of the seven richest countries in the world (sorry, Russia) symbolizes this process. Young people today attach themselves to global issues for a reason. Can you imagine tens of thousands of people demonstrating against George W. Bush's faith-based initiative? Or Tony Blair's plan to reform British Rail?

The world is being reshaped by a synergy between technological revolution and global capitalism. These twin forces have produced a series of concerns--over environmentalism, bioethics, pharmaceutical research, cultural preservation, the future of the welfare system and state sovereignty itself--which are being debated around the world. How we respond to them over the next 20 years will determine the kind of a world we will live in for the next 200.

The protesters are correct about another big thing. Globalization is probably widening inequality around the world. I say probably because inequality is a complicated phenomenon and all depends on how you measure it. (Top 10 percent of the world's population versus bottom 10, or top 20 versus bottom 20? The first shows a rise; the second, a fall.) A few other caveats: inequality is rising but poverty is falling. In other words, the poor are getting richer but the rich are getting richer even faster. (So this is partly a psychological problem--called envy.) Still, one of today's stark realities is enduring poverty and disease in large parts of the world. The protesters are right to say that this is in some ways linked to turbocharged capitalism--a system that rewards the talented and by the same token leaves behind those less skilled or suitable. Thus, in the midst of so much progress, a quarter of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. More troubling, in large parts of Africa and some parts of Asia, things seem hopeless.

It is a sad irony that many of the same people who highlight the desperate condition of poor countries oppose the only realistic solution for them: that they quickly and wholeheartedly embrace the technological revolution of our times. If there is a way for countries that seem mired at the bottom of the heap to climb their way out, it is a technological jump-start. I don't mean that sending computers to Sierra Leone will solve all their problems. The revolutions in science are taking place in three areas: medicine, food and information. For a poor, disease-ridden country to break its free fall, it must exploit all of them--and fast.

"It's unfortunate that the protesters have an anti-technology bias," says Mark Malloch Brown. Malloch Brown, who was at the meetings in Genoa last week, is head of the United Nations Development Program. The UNDP recently issued an astonishing (and astonishingly well-written) report on technology and development ( It urges poor countries to get over their phobias about genetically modified foods. Malloch Brown argues that genetically modified staples--rice, millet, cassava--have 50 percent higher yields, mature 30 to 50 days earlier, are much richer in protein and resist disease, drought, pests and weeds. "Not one person anywhere has died by eating genetically modified food," he says. "On the other hand, malnutrition kills millions every year."

Anti-technology phobias are mostly whipped up in the West and then foisted on the poor. Take DDT, the synthetic pesticide that kills mosquitoes. It was one of the remarkable success stories of the 20th century: eradicating malaria in dozens of countries by the mid-1960s. Environmentalists stopped the use of DDT in the developed world because of concerns about its side effects. Fine, says the UNDP report, but 300 million people--and rising fast--are still afflicted with malaria in tropical countries. Twenty-three nations use DDT to fight malaria and are being pressured to stop. This is absurd. The side effects of DDT are bad, but losing 1 million people a year to malaria is much worse.

When poor countries have adapted technology to their needs, they have done remarkably well. The "green revolution" of the 1960s, which also involved several potentially dangerous new products and techniques, halved malnutrition in Asia within a generation. By fully exposing itself to the capital and technology of the First World in the 1980s and 1990s, East Asia doubled its living standards, a process that took the West more than 100 years. Today, the plight of Africa may seem so much worse but the technologies in health, food, information and communications are so much better.

"The protesters should reflect on the symbolism of Genoa," Malloch Brown told me. "It's the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, one of the greatest explorers in history. They could either follow in the footsteps of Columbus, who showed that embracing innovation and taking risks could have unimaginable benefits. Or else they could just become the latest members of the 'flat earth society,' opposed to modern economics, modern technology, modern science, modern life itself." It's a pity that Malloch Brown spoke to the heads of state in the palaces of Genoa because the people who truly needed to hear him were chanting outside.



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