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Civil Liberties

There is no famine in South London today

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

Not a likely headline in today’s world, and yet this is among the most important news in recent history. Since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet, societies have experienced steady progress on all issues related to their wellbeing: access to food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom and equality. More importantly, progress in the last two centuries has accelerated to the point that the great majority of humans today live longer, better, healthier and richer lives than did their parents and grandparents.

“Progress” is indeed the title of the recently published book by Swedish author Johan Norberg. In it, and after building and analyzing a robust set of metadata compiled from the OECD, the World Bank, UN agencies and other reliable sources, he concludes categorically that “by almost any index, things are markedly better now that they have ever been for almost everyone alive.”

Some examples. Norberg points out that harvests failed frequently in Sweden in the 17th century, and a single famine between 1696 and 1697 killed one in 15 people. There were even some accounts of cannibalism. As economies in Europe grew, per capita consumption of calories increased from around 1,800 in the mid-18th century to 2,700 in 1850. Famines disappeared, and Sweden was declared free from hunger in the early 1900s. But progress is not circumscribed to Europe. Globally, undernourishment fell from 50 percent of the world’s population in 1945 to about 10 percent today. Similarly, access to water and sanitation has increased steadily in its coverage, going from 50 percent to 92 percent in terms of access to clean water, and from 25 percent to 68 percent in terms of sanitation in the last 50 years. The consequence is the removal of one of the main sources of death and disease.

‘Authoritarianism Goes Global’

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Policeman patrols 99% protestNorms, especially global norms, are exceedingly fragile things…like morning dew confronting the sun. As more players conform to a norm, it gets stronger. In the same way, as more players flout it, disregard it or loudly attack it, it begins to lose that ever so subtle effect on the mind that is the basis of its power.  When a norm is flouted and consequences do not follow the norm begins to die.

Looking back now, we clearly had a magical moment in global affairs a while back. Post 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, communism ended in most places, apartheid South Africa magically turned into democratic South Africa, and so on; it seemed like an especially blessed moment. The bells of freedom tolled so vigorously mountains echoed the joyous sound. It seemed as though anything was possible, that the form of governance known as liberal constitutional democracy would sweep imperiously into every cranny of the globe.

Just as important, there were precious few defenders of autocracy in those days. Almost every regime on earth claimed to be democratic, even if the evidence was discrepant. They could at least claim to be ‘democratic’ in some utterly singular if implausible way. Now, all that has changed. Despots and sundry autocrats strut the earth. They are not ashamed. They are not afraid. They are brazen. They are in your face. They say to anyone who asks: “Hey, I am a despot. I have my own League of Despots. Deal with it”.  And what is confronting the brazenness? The apparently exhausted ideals of liberal constitutionalism suddenly bereft of defenders.

The specific occasion for these reflections is the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Democracy (Volume 26, Number 3). It is a special issue focused on these matters, and I took my title from the lead essay: “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms”, written by Alexander Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. His basic claim is as follows:

"Over the past decade, authoritarians have experimented with and refined a number of tools, practices, and institutions that are meant to shield their regimes from external criticism and to erode the norms that inform and underlie the liberal international political order." (Page 49)

Who Decides What is Acceptable Speech in the Global Public Sphere?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Is free speech a fundamental right and does it have appropriate limits? Pope Francis has provided the most memorable recent attempt at an answer. Yes, there is such a thing as a right to free speech but if you upset people you might have a punch travelling towards your face. But the Pope’s intervention is only one amongst many. In the wake of the recent terrorist outrages in Paris, and the massive responses to it globally, a debate has erupted about the nature of free speech and its appropriate boundaries. It is an intense and global debate, but, as often happens when human emotions are all aquiver, there has been more heat than light. In what follows, I will make an effort to untangle the issues before tackling the question I posed in the heading.

And in doing so, I am going to take two views of free speech. The first is what I call the internal view: free speech considered within the boundaries of specific countries and legal systems. The second is what I call the global view: free speech within the emerging global public sphere.  I begin with the internal view.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

From Poverty to Power (Oxfam)
What does the future hold for civil society organization?

"I’ve been struggling to make sense of the changing landscape for civil society organizations, North and South, and could do with your help. Here are some initial thoughts, but please send in your own, plus useful references:

One door opens, another shuts
There are contradictory and ambiguous trends for civil society at national and global levels. On the plus side:

  • Growing size, strength and sophistication at national level and globally of CSOs of all shapes, sizes and coalitions. (For an example, see previous post on the Global Campaign for Education)
  • Recognition from other actors (international institutions, aid donors, TNCs) of the importance of CSOs as partners and stakeholders"