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UN: Report Says Globalization Mainly Benefits One-Fifth Of World

  • Joe Lauria

United Nations, 13 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Globalization has been a boom for the top 20 percent of the world's population and a bust for just about everyone else, says a UN report on human development released Monday.

The top one-fifth living in the most developed countries produce 86 percent of the globe's domestic product, while the bottom 20 percent controls just 1 percent. The wealthiest 20 percent now earns 74 times as much as the bottom fifth, as opposed to only 30 times more in 1960.

"The collapse of space, time and borders may be creating a global village, but not everyone can be a citizen," the 10th annual UN Development Program's Human Development Report says. "The global, professional elite now faces low borders, but billions of others find borders as high as ever."

The report says the richest 200 people in the world more than doubled their net worth in the four years to 1998 to $1 trillion, which is more than the gross national products respectively of Canada, Belgium, Spain, South Korea, Brazil or Russia, the report says.

Globalization has meant the enrichment of the biggest transnational corporations, often at the expense of an increasingly impoverished developing world. General Motors, Ford Motors, Mitsubishi, Royal Dutch/Shell, Exxon, Toyota Motor and Wal-Mart Stores all had greater sales in 1997 than the gross domestic products of Malaysia, Israel, Colombia, Venezuela or the Philippines.

The market share of the top ten corporations in telecommunications in 1998 was 86 percent, in pesticides 85 percent, and computers 70 percent, the report says.

In addition, industrialized countries hold 97 percent of all patents worldwide. The report calls for a review of the World Trade Organization's intellectual property laws, which it says was negotiated with little input from developing countries.

Compounding the problem has been the privatization of research and development. "In defining the research agenda, money talks louder than need -- cosmetic drugs and slow-ripening tomatoes come higher on the list than a vaccine against malaria or drought-resistant crops," says the report. "For poor people, technological progress remains far out of reach."

Whereas wealth was once measured by owning land or factories, today it is information. "Writing computer programs and revealing genetic codes have replaced the search for gold, the conquest of land and the command of machinery as the path to economic power," says the report.

And information technology and cultural production is overwhelmingly controlled by the richest countries. "For the United States, the largest single export industry is not aircraft, computers or automobiles -- it is entertainment, in films and television programs," the report says.

Access to the Internet, which is playing an increasingly important role in the world economy and culture, is almost exclusively restricted to the top 20 percent of the population, which control 74 percent of all telephone lines, the report says.

In ten years the number of computers linked to the Internet has grown from 100,000 to 38 million, but 80 percent of websites are in English, though less than ten percent of the world speak it. The U.S. has more computers than the rest of the world combined.

"The UN needs to play a major role in creating some global checks and balances on corporations and for greater accountability," said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

Cavanagh, in a telephone interview with our UN correspondent, blamed former U.S. President Ronald Reagan administration's decision to pull the U.S. out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1984 as a response to UNESCO's efforts to end America's domination of the international entertainment market.

Washington also pushed the UN to effectively abolish the UN Center on Transnational Corporations in the mid-1990's, Cavanagh said. "It's time to rekindle a discussion of the UN role in enhancing corporate accountability."

The UNDP report also contains its list of the best and worst countries in which to live. For the sixth straight year, Canada was judged the best, followed by Norway, the United States, Japan and Belgium. For the third straight year, Sierra Leone was judged to be the least developed nation, followed by Niger, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso.

The rankings are calculated by combining life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment and per capita gross domestic product. It does not include other quality of life factors such as climate, environmental conditions, cultural opportunities, or housing costs.

In the former Soviet bloc, the Czech Republic was rated by UNDP as having the highest standard of living, coming in 36th overall. This was followed by Slovakia (42), Poland (44), Hungary (47), Estonia (54), Belarus (60), Lithuania (62), Bulgaria (63), Romania (68), Russia (71), Ukraine (91), Uzbekistan (92), Turkmenistan (96), Kyrgysztan (97), Azerbaijan (103), Moldova (104), and Tajikistan (108).

By contrast, China was selected the 98th best country to live in despite several years of phenomenal economic growth. In 1990, the first year of the UNDP survey, the Soviet Union was given a ranking of 25. Russia fell to 67 in 1997 and 72 in 1998.

The report predicts that "ultimately, people and nations will reject global integration and global interdependence if they do not gain from it. Pressures will mount to retreat to isolationism in economic policy, culture and in political priorities."