Sat, 12 Feb 2000

Developing world: 'Quo vadis'?

By Omar Halim

This is the second of two articles inspired by predictions of the direction science will take in the 21st century.

JAKARTA (JP): From 2050 to 2100 several new developments are expected to dominate. "Robots may gradually attain a degree of 'self-awareness' and 'consciousness,'" and they will be able to make independent decisions, physicist Michio Kaku writes.

Similarly, the DNA revolution will have advanced to the point where "biogeneticists are able to create new types of organisms involving the transfer of hundreds of genes, allowing us to increase our food supply and improve medicine and our health.

"It may also give us the ability to design new life forms and to orchestrate the physical and perhaps even the mental makeup of our children", and "quantum theory will exert a powerful influence in the next century, especially in the area of energy production".

Lester C. Thurow, the former dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, quoted by Kaku, states that "in the 21st century, brainpower and imagination, invention and organization of new technologies are the key strategic ingredients".

For those countries that pride themselves on their rich natural resources, they will find that "their wealth (will be) vastly reduced because, in the marketplace of the future, commodities will be cheap, trade will be global and markets will be linked electronically.

"Already, the commodity prices of many natural resources have plummeted some 60 percent from the 1970s to the 1990s and, in Thurow's estimation, will plummet further another 60 percent by 2020."

Since the factors of production which are relevant practically narrow down to two, i.e. knowledge and skill, the economic implication, as stated by Kaku, is that "these three scientific revolutions are not only the key to scientific breakthroughs in the next century; they are also the dynamic engines of wealth and prosperity" and, more ominously, "nations may rise and fall on their ability to master these three revolutions".

The social implications drawn in broad terms by Kaku are that "by the close of the 21st century, the sheer power of the three scientific revolutions will force the nations of the earth to cooperate on a scale never seen before in history. Already the information revolution is creating global links on a scale unparalleled in human history, tearing down petty, parochial interests while creating a global culture. The information revolution is building and forging a common planetary culture out of thousands of smaller ones".

The analysis and predictions regarding the three scientific revolutions are, as presented by Kaku, based on his collaboration with about 150 prominent scientists. The fact is that the progress in DNA sequencing and in computer technology can be witnessed and felt by nonscientists as well. If Kaku's predictions are true, the implications are that the world economy will be dominated by countries able to pioneer, or follow, these areas of technological progress, and their social and cultural systems will form the mode of the "common planetary culture" in the future.

What will be left for the economies, social systems and cultures of the developing world?

No doubt that Kaku's sweeping conclusions regarding the impact of this technological progress on the economic and social systems of the world should be carefully scrutinized. In the developing world, only a number of countries are rich in natural resources. When a natural resource can be technologically substituted, its world market price will drop, perhaps even becoming worthless.

Note that the successful development of nuclear fusion energy, which is based on unlimited hydrogen and oxygen, would render the price of fossil fuel practically nill. This could also happen to food and industrial raw materials. If this were to happen, what then would be the contribution of developing countries to the world economy?

It would shrink to the point of supplying only those natural raw materials necessary, presumably in smaller and smaller quantities, for the production of goods and services. Economically, developing countries would become more and more dependent on the industrialized world.

The "common planetary culture" Kaku speaks about would be dominated by the rich who controlled the advanced technologies and communications. Even now, do people in the industrialized countries hear songs and see plays or films made in Africa, Asia or Latin America, as much as the developing world hears songs and see films or television programs from industrialized countries, particularly the United States? The social values and cultures of the developing countries would continue to be localized and eroded, perhaps eventually becoming extinct.

As it is now, decisions that matter to the world as a whole would mainly be taken by industrialized countries, either in their respective countries or in the international fora. If what Kaku said about the scientific revolution forces all nations to cooperate on an unprecedented scale, will this mean the subjugation of poor countries by rich countries?

Perhaps even worse, the developing world -- home to the overwhelming majority of the world's population, and with very low per capita income -- would only offer a vast but poor market for the goods and services produced by the world. Over time, the discrepancy in the level of living, including food intake, health, educational, leisure time and other amenities of life, would widen at an accelerating pace.

In the rich countries, human beings would live longer, healthier and richer lives; while those in the developing world would experience the opposite trend. We would find that the division between rich and poor countries and peoples would become more apparent and the polarization increasingly dangerous.

If this occurred, there would be a small group of privileged people, with the rest the world's population subjugated to that group. Extended further, such a progression of events could lead to the perception of "superior" versus "inferior" groups or races, and some people might even go so far as to think of the "inferior" as dispensable.

These conjectures are no doubt alarmist, perhaps exceedingly so. People from the industrialized countries themselves would not like to see this happen in the future. So what can be done to prevent this scenario from even being remotely feasible?

First, and foremost, is for the developing world to put its own house in order so that their economies can grow and compete, through the principle of comparative advantage, with industrialized countries.

This entails undertaking thorough political, economic and judicial reforms that will result in democratization and, through the elimination of corruption, collusion and nepotism, produce lean and competitive economies. This is no doubt feasible. Look at the relative newcomers to the developed world, such as South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. They have had such sustained economic growth that their per capita income levels are no longer inferior to countries in the West.

Second, in order to strengthen their political and economic bases and to be able to take advantage of economies of scale, the developing world should reverse the existing disintegrative trend. Smaller countries and economies are much more vulnerable in dealing with others, politically and economically speaking.

In contrast, it should be noted that the already industrialized countries of Europe are presently undergoing the process of unification. Especially after the eastward unification, the unified Europe will have a larger population base than every nation except China and India, both of which are developing countries.

Third, developing countries should form common policies to ensure they derive significant benefits from the world trade and financial systems, enabling their economies to grow rapidly and ensuring the transfer of relevant technologies.

In the end, people from industrialized countries would prefer to see and live in a world that is economically competitive and dynamic, and socially and culturally interactive, resulting in a truly diverse and enriching world.

The writer is a former senior staff member at the United Nations. He resides in Jakarta.