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Opinion

July 9, 2016

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Knowledge and public policy

Three features of the contemporary world manifest the challenges to knowledge and public policy at the global, regional and national levels. First, the global environmental crisis that threatens the life support systems of the planet.

The associated increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events together with the prospect of severe shortages of fresh water endanger the stability of societies and states. For example in South Asia fresh water shortages over the decades ahead are estimated to adversely affect 500 million people, while declining river flows associated with global warming could exacerbate tensions between lower and upper riparian states and provinces; the heat effect on seeds are estimated to reduce grain crop yields in South Asia by up to 30 percent, creating the danger of severe food shortages, ceteris paribus.

Despite landmark research by the UN’s Inter Governmental Panel for Climate Change, the Millennium Eco System Assessment and a host of other studies, the corpus of knowledge is still inadequate with regard to the specific country effects of global warming and the trajectory of the crisis over the next fifty years, much less the technology policies and the social, economic and political institutions required to manage the crisis.

Second, the increasing economic and social inequality threatens the fabric of societies. Less than one percent of the world’s population owns 50 percent of the world’s wealth while the remaining 99 percent of the population own the remaining 50 percent of the wealth. The emerging dominance of the financial sphere over the sphere of the real economy accentuates the existing economic inequality wherein a small number of the affluent who own financial assets can get fabulously rich very quickly while those who eke out a living in the real economy face an equally rapid decline in their earnings amidst rising unemployment.

The pre-eminence of finance in the operations of the contemporary economy also creates conflicting policy interests between the owners of financial assets and those who seek employment in the sphere of the production of commodities. The former want even greater integration of the global economy, free play of market forces and constraints on the role of the state, hence austerity in the provision of public services; the latter want protection of jobs and national markets at a time when both are threatened by recession and at the same time want greater not lesser intervention of the state in the market system.

Thus social and political polarisation is being induced by economic inequality during the present era of a global slowdown in economic growth. It is a polarisation that is giving rise to extreme right-wing tendencies that may constitute a danger to the fabric of societies and democratic states.

Here again, the knowledge base for understanding the structure and dynamics of the current economic, social and political crisis is inadequate despite recent pioneering contributions by a host of social scientists including Thomas Piketty, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Marc Spence, Amartya Sen, Douglass North, Mervyn King, A B Atkinson and John Eatwell.

The third feature of the contemporary world is widespread violence based on militant extremism invoking bigoted versions of religious, sectarian, linguistic or nationalist ideologies. While some of these militant extremist movements are national such as those led by extreme right-wing groups in Germany, France and the US, others such as the so-called Isis or Al-Qaeda appear to have a regional or even a global agenda. Such forms of militant extremism have two deadly features.

First, they use IT that powers social media through the internet and are thereby able to virtually reach most people on the planet with their extremist ideologies. Second, once individuals or groups fall under the sway of such an ideology, especially if they are not on the radar screens of the world’s intelligence agencies, they become dispersed time bombs that can be triggered by unknown psychological processes, or the command of an isolated terrorist cell. Equipped with usually easily available hand carried weapons they can kill large numbers of innocent people in crowded urban spaces.

This kind of ‘asymmetric’ warfare whereby citizens can be killed with impunity, and these acts then projected as fearsome spectacles by the mass media, essentially threatens the modern nation state. This is because the legitimacy of the state is drawn primarily from its ability to protect the life of its citizens.

Most of the weapon systems of the modern state are configured to prosecute wars against other states. Their ability to identify and apprehend a potential terrorist is rather limited despite impressive developments in surveillance technologies. This is particularly so in democratic states where the rights of due process of law and protection of individual freedom and privacy are constitutionally guaranteed.

Beyond the organisational, technological and legal limitations of effective counter terrorism is a critical knowledge gap. This lies in the complexity of the idea of the ‘enemy’ in this context. A perfectly law-abiding citizen, unbeknown to the state may be subject to a process of exclusion, rejection or alienation operating at the social or family level. At some point in this process, grievances could build up and options of extremist solutions of redemption may be nurtured through the terrorist ideological apparatus on the internet to create the time bomb.

Very little is known about the nature of psychological processes that create terrorists and the interface of these processes with the way society, economy and the state function in the contemporary world order.

Governments and international organisations are struggling to devise public policy to address these three central challenges of our time: the environmental crisis, the crisis of inequality and the crisis of widespread violence. But the formulation and implementation of effective public policy requires a new interdisciplinary, as opposed to a multidisciplinary, knowledge base.

Such knowledge requires rigorous scholarship based on a holistic understanding of the confluence of human consciousness with the history, structure and dynamics of the global system of power, economy and society.

The writer is a professor of economics at the Forman Christian College University, Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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