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January 15, 2017

In the age of uncertainty


January 15, 2017

As the uni-polar world begins to weaken and the multi-polar order struggles to define itself, the world is gradually entering the age of uncertainty. This uncertainty is multidimensional and it is fast-paced. As the old compass becomes irrelevant, how does Pakistan hope to safely navigate through the unfolding uncertainties?

Rapid developments in technology, instant communications, the globalised economy and free movement of ideas and capital across borders have accelerated the rate of change in the fortunes of nations and the balance of power among them.

This age of uncertainty is affecting established ideas and the established order of relations among countries. Several things are in the melting pot.

As Asia has embraced globalisation, the West is moving away from it and leaning towards protective national economies. The two contending economic forces will cloud the future for many countries.

The age of instant communications in a globalised economy is also giving birth to a global culture which, in many places, is at odds with local and regional cultures. This clash of cultures is another source of instability and uncertainties, which affects the future of many countries.

The 20th century was dominated by the intellectual struggle between the left and the right. But with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, the bipolarity of the debate had ended. The victory in the Cold War was quickly interpreted in ideological terms to have heralded ‘the end of history’.

Francis Fukuyama, the intellectual godfather of the uni-polar world, had proudly proclaimed in 1992 that mankind’s search for a perfect economic and political system has finally ended with the victory of free market capitalism and liberal democracy in the Cold War.

Within a quarter of a century, this thesis was turned on its head in its home countries. The end of ‘the end of history’  has been unfolding before our eyes as both free market capitalism and liberal democracy have been under attack in the home countries of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This has been demonstrated by the victory of Donald Trump in the US against all expectations and Brexit in the UK.

While free market capitalism multiplied the wealth of the Darwinian fittest, it left the weakest of the society in this battle of the survival of the economically fittest, out in the cold to fend for themselves. 

The anger and frustration against liberal democracy has been gathering momentum because issues – such as poverty, unemployment, under-employment and the stagnant or declining wages of large sections of society in rich and developed countries – were being pushed to the backburner by vocal and well-entrenched groups who had managed to restrict liberalism to be defined only in social and cultural terms. Both ideas were defeated by the silent majority.

As a result, several established ideas and policies are in the melting pot, struggling to redefine themselves and remain relevant. The old compass to set the direction is becoming irrelevant in the unfolding multi-polar world.

The rate of technical change is affecting the fate of nations. What used to take centuries, can now occur within decades. The fortunes of countries and their balance of power positions can undergo swift changes in the age of the globalised economy and instant communications. 

Just take a look at the rate of change in the world history. While the Ottoman Empire lasted 400 years, the British, French, Dutch and the Russians held their sway for about 200 years. Pax Americana ruled for less than 100 years. When Germany, Italy and Japan – who were late arrivals – tried to establish their empires after World War I, the competition triggered the Second World War and the exercise in empire-building ended in less than 50 years.  

Similarly, it took 200 years of experiencing the gains of the Industrial Revolution and accumulating wealth from colonisation for the UK and other European nations to achieve high levels of development and standard of living for their citizens. It took the US less than 100 years after the Civil War to arrive at the same standards of living when it came to the rescue of the UK and France in WWII. But, it took 50 years for Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea to arrive at the same table of economic development. Now, China has compressed the time needed to reach this stage to 30 years. 

Therefore, we ask our fundamental question: why have 70 years not been sufficient – in this age of rapid economic growth – for Pakistan to rid its citizens of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and unemployment and provide them with the essentials of a decent life as sovereign citizens?

Any talk – couched in whatever fancy phrases which are mere excuses for not delivering the concrete practical benefits of independence to citizens even after 70 years – is tantamount to deceiving people, encouraging their exploitation and depriving yet another generation of their legitimate future.

Deceiving people through fancy slogans is a common practice in many developing countries. As we have seen above, the time it took governments 200 years ago to deliver higher standards of living to their citizens has now been compressed to between 30 and 50 years in the age of instant communications, the cross-border flows of technology and capital and the globalised economy.

The flipside of the coin is that there are also countries which have been independent for over 50, 100 and even 200 years – such as Haiti, Peru and others. But their people have remained at the bottom of every index of economic and human development. The citizens of these countries have been fooled for a long time by the fancy slogans of their leaders who are stealing the wealth of their countries and making safe havens abroad.

We now come to the most critical issue that explains the success or failure of nations: the system of governance under which people live in a country and the method of electing and selecting leaders through such a system who would control resources and decide on behalf of the people.

The evidence is right in front of us. There are systems of governance under which citizens of a country can attain high standards of living within 30 to 50 years. And there are systems of governance under which citizens continue to eke out a miserable living even after 50, 100 and even 200 years of independence.

This leads us to ask ourselves a more worrying question. In an age of instant communications and the globalised economy, if a system of governance cannot deliver in 70 years what other countries have achieved within 30 to 50 years, how will it foster the vision to handle even existential challenges arising from the age of uncertainty where old compasses provide no guidance?

We may well be living in interesting times. They carry dangers but they also bring opportunities. How well countries prepare themselves to navigate through the unfolding uncertainties will determine the future they will face.

How well is Pakistan preparing itself for the age of uncertainty?

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank.

Email: [email protected]

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