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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE ECONOMIC CRISIS

U.N. Must Be Part of the Solution

Strategies to deal with globalization will succeed only if applied within a clear political framework.

September 24, 1998|KOFI A. ANNAN | Kofi A. Annan is secretary-general of the United Nations

The Asian crisis, now rapidly becoming a global crisis, is by no means a purely financial matter. It has disastrous consequences for millions of people in their everyday lives. Moreover, it is the poor who are hardest hit.

In Indonesia, almost 15,000 workers are losing their jobs every day this year. And poverty comes with its usual sorry retinue: hunger, social unrest, violence, abuse of human rights. The least developed countries, the ones least able to influence world priorities and policies, are being penalized yet again.

So the human dimension must be at the heart of the response--including debt relief--to this first major crisis of globalization.

Of course, the role of the seven major industrial powers, and of the world's finance ministers and central bankers, remains crucial. But they cannot and should not undertake this task alone. All parts of the international system need to come together.

President Clinton has suggested wide-ranging discussions on the new world "financial architecture." No doubt some will say that this is none of the U.N.'s business. There are other international bodies, more specialized and perhaps more competent to deal with economic problems: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the Bank for International Settlements. But the U.N. is the one truly global institution we all belong to. It must have a seat at the table. Economic and financial strategies will succeed only if they are applied within a clear political framework. That framework will command much wider support if, through the U.N., all affected countries have played a part in working it out.

Over the long term, globalization will be positive. It draws us closer together and enables us to produce more efficiently, to control our environment, to improve our quality of life. But such benefits are not felt equally by all. For many people, "long term" is too far off to be meaningful. Millions on this planet still live in isolation, on the margins of the world economy. Millions more are experiencing globalization not as a great new opportunity but as a profoundly disruptive force that attacks both their material living standards and their culture.

Some of those who had benefited most from open markets and capital flows are now feeling the greatest pain. The temptation to retreat into nationalism or populism is strong. But, fortunately, in most developing countries, those false solutions are being rejected.

Each country's crisis has its own local features and causes. Each country has to address its own specific problems and shortcomings. But many countries need help, for these are not just financial or macro-economic problems. They have grave social and political consequences, and some of their causes are to be found in political and social systems. The U.N. has a responsibility, as the universal institution, to insist on the need for worldwide solutions based on rules that are fair to all.

It is our job to ensure that nations do not react to this crisis by turning their backs on universal values. In such crises, we must come together to find solutions based on the founding principles which all our member states have in common: those of the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, we have a special responsibility to speak up for the victims or potential victims. We cannot forget the countries in Africa and elsewhere whose debt burdens the crisis has made even more unsustainable.

Debt relief is often resisted on grounds of "moral hazard," that it rewards the reckless and penalizes the prudent. But were not the lenders often just as reckless and irresponsible as the borrowers? Can it really be moral for them to insist on full interest and full repayment if the result is that children not yet born when the debts were contracted are denied even a subsistence diet or an elementary education?

Many nations feel their interests are ignored or neglected in specialized economic bodies, where the strongest voices, for quite understandable reasons, tend to be those of countries which have already achieved economic success. But the U.N. provides a forum for informed debate among all those affected by the crisis. It has to represent all stakeholders in the global economy.

The U.N. must play its part in the search for solutions that preserve the benefits of globalization while protecting those who have suffered or who have been left out.

None of us would claim to have gotten everything right in our handling of globalization. I certainly make no such claim for the U.N. All of us bear some share of responsibility for the present crisis. But by working together to solve problems, we can make our work more credible, relevant and legitimate in the eyes of the world at large.

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