In 1900 the number of sovereign independent states amounted to 55; the number of states governed by colonial or imperial powers also numbered 55 and the percentage of the world population living in democracies was just 12.4%. By 2000 this picture had changed completely – the number of independent states had increased to 192; virtually no-one was ruled by a colonial or imperial power and over 60% of people lived in ‘democracy’. Today only 6 countries continue to deny women the right to vote (Bhutan, Lebanon, Brunei, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Vatican City) and 136 countries now have explicit guarantees for the equality of all citizens and non-discrimination between men and women in their constitutions.
The world has witnessed hugely significant improvements in key areas of life. Average life expectancy has increased by 21% to 68 years in developing countries overall since 1970; literacy has increased by 61% between 1970 and 2010; all but 3 countries have a higher level of human development today than they had in 1970; the poverty rate declined to 25% of global population in 2005 from 42% in 1990 and the share of democratic countries worldwide increased from less than a third in in the early 1970s to more than three-fifths in 2008. These positive trends are ‘counter-balanced’ by the negative trends outlined below…
The world is now more ‘globalised’ and ‘integrated’ than ever before. The ‘opening’ up of economies and markets (controversially spearheaded by the World Trade Organisation, the IMF and the World Bank), the emergence and growing power of global agricultural, industrial and financial corporations, the emergence of new information technologies and the rise of ‘global culture’ in food, music, consumerism etc. has caused the world to become more ‘integrated’ than ever before. The realities of climate change, environmental damage and the ‘privatisation’ of increased components of the ‘global commons’ has forced communities, countries and regions more closely together. For those who can afford them, increased travel, greater access to the internet and digital technology has, in the words of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, ‘flattened’ the world. Decisions and actions in one part of the world now routinely have consequences (both negative and positive) in many other parts.
Despite its increased ‘integration, the world is now more unequal than ever before. The richest 1% of the world’s people own more than 40% of all global wealth; the richest 10% own 94% while the poorest 10% own just 0.12%. According to the World Bank (2011), 82% of world wealth was in the High Income OECD countries with just 0.53% in low-income countries. Today, it is estimated that the 500 highest income earners in the US make as much money in one year as the entire population of some 20 African nations – more than 300 million people.
World poverty has now overtaken warfare as the biggest killer. Approximately 360 million people have died from hunger and remediable diseases in peacetime in the last 20 years since the end of the Cold War than died as a result of wars, civil wars and government repression over the entire 20th century.
The current unequal shape of our world has major consequences, primarily for the poor and excluded but also for future generations. 1,020 million people in the world are estimated by the FAO to be chronically undernourished; 884 million lack access to safe water and 2,500 million do not have access to basic sanitation according to WHO and UNICEF; an estimated 2,000 million lack access to essential medical drugs; 924 million do not have adequate shelter; 1,600 million lack electricity; 774 million adults are illiterate and 218 million children are child labourers.
According to economist Jeffrey Sachs ‘The world’s current ecological, demographic and economic trajectory is unsustainable, meaning that if we continue with ‘business as usual’, we will hit social and ecological crises with calamitous results…The paradox of a unified global economy and divided global society poses the single greatest threat to the planet because it makes impossible the cooperation needed to address the remaining challenges. A clash of civilisations, if we survived one, would undo all that humanity has built and would cast a shadow for generations to come…’