Ghosh: Multilateralism in a Fragmented World


Professor Jayati Ghosh delivers an address to the launch event of the New International Economic Order on the opportunities of a fragmented geopolitical order for a new world to flourish in its cracks.

50 years ago, many countries of the world — accounting for the majority of the world's population — came together to demand a New International Economic Order. That effort was certainly important, and provided an insight into many of the problems faced by developing countries. But it was ultimately unsuccessful. 

Instead, we got a revival of the power of those who already controlled the global economy: large corporations based in the advanced countries. We then entered a phase of neoliberal capitalism led by global finance that has dramatically altered the landscape. Since then, of course, much has happened. We have had not only the emergence of a much greater power of capital over labor, but also the emergence of countries that have achieved significant development progress, such as China, without following the official rules of the game.

That's important, because that has changed the world in a way that has generated more potential multipolarity, and that provides space for development and for greater equality. But I think what we have to do now, to realize the new desire for a New International Economic Order fit for the 21st century, is to reconsider — to push back and claw back — some of the rights that we have lost over the past 50 years, and to reinvent what we need for a just, equitable, sustained, viable international economy. 

That means, to begin with, at the national and international level, to rethink and undo the major privatizations of the past 50 years — the privatization of the commons and of nature, of land, of water, forests, of so many other resources; the privatization of public services, which has forced many more people to rely on monetary income to get the most basic needs and services, and has fostered financialization of many services that used to be delivered; to reverse the privatization of knowledge and of technologies, which have meant increasing concentration of the most essential knowledge that is required not only to meet our social goals, but to save the planet. Essentially, we have to now start thinking of how to make our economies work for the common good, for the public interest, for society and for nature and for the planet. Instead of constantly thinking of how each of these elements — of how people, workers, etc. — of how all of these things can serve the economy, instead, we have to make the economy serve all of these goals. That's really why we have economies at all. We are organizing our societies along ways in which we want to deliver our social goals. And, increasingly, to be in harmony with nature and the planet. 

Now, what does that mean? It's many things. It means that we have to restore public wealth, which has declined dramatically over the last 30 years, in particular. Across the world, we have seen that public wealth has declined with the privatization of state-owned assets, the decline in various kinds of commons, and the inability to tax the rich and large corporations, which has meant that there is really therefore no money available, no fiscal space available, to meet the rights — economic and social rights — of ordinary citizens. We need to bring in regulations that place human rights, environment, planet, nature, above the rights of corporations, above the rights of the extremely wealthy.

This means moving away from the notion that markets can deliver all of the outcomes that we want, and recognizing that they have to be constrained, regulated in the public good, in the common interest, in order to meet our other goals. 

We have to obviously drastically reform our global food system. Our food systems today are not just unsustainable and viable, but deeply damaging to our health, to the planet, to the environment. They generate enormous amounts of carbon emissions. They generate unhealthy forms of consumption. They generate the inability to feed large numbers of people across the world when others are suffering from the malnutrition of excess. And so we need to think of sustainable food systems, which are equitable and available to all. 

We need to control and direct finance. I think that is beyond question now, because currently we have a financial system that is simply not fit for purpose, that is generating fragility, vulnerabilities across the world, creating financial cycles that provide no advantage to anyone except profits to financial companies and banks.

We need to bring finance in line with the kinds of investments that we need for society and for nature. I mentioned already that we have to tax the rich. That's partly the reason we cannot do so, because we have a global architecture of taxes which is a century old and which is completely unfit for purpose in the 21st century.

We are still treating multinational corporations as individual corporations in each country, which allows them to shift profits to low tax jurisdictions and avoid paying the taxes that even local companies pay. We are enabling high net worth individuals — the extremely rich — to move their money around the world to different tax havens without declaring beneficial ownership, and to avoid wealth taxation in multiple ways.

These are all things that can be resolved very quickly and easily if we actually engage in genuine tax cooperation that is designed to benefit governments and people rather than the large corporations and the extremely rich. We have to therefore make sure that governments do not fall prey to the control of these very same elites who are currently forcing regulations or enabling loopholes that allow all of this tax avoidance to occur.

All of this that I mention requires a different kind of multilateral architecture. Currently, it's not just “not fit for purpose,” it's actively destroying our economies and our ability to survive on this planet. It is generating massive climate change, which is occurring much more rapidly than even the IPCC reports had predicted. Each IPCC report recognizes that they had underestimated the scope, intensity and damage created by already occurring climate change.

And we have to urgently prevent, mitigate, adapt and provide compensation for loss and damage. That requires huge investment. That means that we cannot anymore think of this as something that national governments have to provide. We have to see this as a global public investment that requires a global approach, because climate change doesn't recognize visas, passports, or national borders.


So we have to treat this as a planetary problem, as a human problem, and we have to find the cooperation that will generate the kinds of global public investment that is necessary and urgent. This means, for example, the multilateral development banks, not just the World Bank and the regional development banks, but all of the different multilateral banks and financial institutions, have to be redesigned to respond to these challenges, to deal with public health requirements and emergencies, to address the needs of investment, to mitigate, adapt to climate change, to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, which are not on track at the moment and which are definitely not going to be met, especially in the poorer countries and the bottom half of the global population. 

We have to repurpose the IMF, which has unfortunately not been able to deal with the essential challenges for which it was actually created, which is to provide and enable countercyclical lending when it is required to deal with episodes of debt distress; to prevent the kind of cycles of terrible debt crises and damage done to economies because of their inability to pay; to enable debt restructuring and debt relief wherever required; to provide liquidity to all countries, and particularly to those countries who are short of it, instead of simply a global system in which finance can just create money out of a hat. Public finance can be generated for the rich countries when they need it, as in the COVID-19 pandemic, but is simply unavailable to the rest of the world in low- and middle-income countries. Because of fear of capital flight — fear of the reactions of private investors, and the markets —  they are unable to produce the same kind of fiscal response, or even monetary response, that their economies and their societies need.

All of this can be done. It's not impossible. Remember, these institutions which feel like they are written in stone, they were all created by human minds — human ingenuity, if you like — and they can be undone by human minds and by human ingenuity.

Most of all, in addition to all of this, we need to consider the concentration of knowledge which has become something that is obscene and actively killing people. We saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the continued control over patents of vaccines and drugs that were developed with huge amounts of public subsidy remained in private hands and were not distributed, so that wider production was simply not allowed. The knowledge about these technologies was not disseminated in a way that would ensure that everybody was adequately protected through vaccination, or that even currently, those who have the disease can be adequately treated through the therapeutic devices that are already available.

We have to do something about the terrible inequities and unjust regime of intellectual property rights, not only because we are unable to deal with public health emergencies because of this, but also because it will actively prevent our ability to deal with climate change. We cannot hope for global climate change mitigation unless we widely disseminate these technologies.

That means the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement has to be reconsidered. It has to be reworked to recognize the urgent needs for the wider dissemination of essential knowledge. 

Again, this is something that can be done — it is a relatively new agreement. It was done because of active lobbying by a relatively small group of powerful lobbies in rich countries. It can be undone if we have sufficient countervailing power, if we actually try to build people's power versus the power of large corporations that are able currently to influence governments.

There has never been a more important time to talk about a new multilateralism in a very rapidly changing world. Now that we know that the existing structures of multilateralism are simply not working — not generating either peace or stability or security or economic viability or planetary sustainability — we have to rethink these institutions. We have to think of an international architecture that will work in the current global situation.

This is possible because the world is more fragmented now, for geopolitical reasons and economic reasons. That fragmentation provides an opportunity for all of us who are concerned with much broader economic justice to think of and to work towards generating a genuinely progressive alternative.

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Jayati Ghosh is an Indian development economist. She is the Chairperson of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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