Even before the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world, changes in the global economy were already afoot. Let’s start with the facts.
More than 85% of the world’s population lives outside North America and Europe. When you add in the spread of connective technology and rapid urbanization in this “85 world,” it becomes clear that power in trade, raw economic prowess and even domination of technology has shifted away from the West.
Put simply, the line between “developed” and “developing” economies has worn extremely thin. Does it still even make sense to carve the world into these two spheres, where one is seen to be superior to the other?
The various reactions to the pandemic bring this question into greater focus. How could it be that some of the world’s most advanced countries – in terms of per capita GDP, technological culture, patents filed each year, university graduation rate, etc – couldn’t set up a halfway decent testing program for Covid-19, while much smaller nations managed to create advanced testing platforms virtually overnight?
Some nations in Asia used what fiscal dry powder the state had to ensure unemployment didn’t spike, even as American politicians deadlocked over emergency jobless payments and one-off stimulus checks. Malaysia, meanwhile, has managed to do more than just “flatten the curve” and is seeing a revival in manufacturing. And it far from alone in East Asia.
Writing in the London Review of Books, Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra argued that the pandemic revealed that “early winners of modern history now seem to be its biggest losers, with their delegitimized political systems, grotesquely distorted economies and shattered social contracts.”
As the 85 world looks to the future with hope and ambition (albeit badly shaken), the West stands at a crossroads in a swamp. Will countries like the US continue on the path of demagoguery and decline, or will they reinvent their societies and economies to put a floor under the falling prospects of the poor and working-class? The Covid-19 pandemic has simply brought forward this question.
In the US, as the White House and Democrats recently sparred over another stimulus package, one thing was clear: America may lecture other countries about their need to reform, but it failed at a crucial time to recognize its own need for a cathartic refresh.
The pandemic has exposed existing deep cracks in the well-being of ordinary Americans. Somehow, in the richest country in world, citizens have no human right to medical care.
Meanwhile, its division between federal and states’ rights and obligations has badly served the country and its people in the crisis. What happens when the constitution is a barrier to prudent policy? Yet instead of recognizing deficiencies that require, yes, deep reform, politicians bickered over ad hoc aid that will soon run out.
If we begin to think about the post-pandemic world, it’s clear it is not just about economics. Of course, the West will continue to wield huge economic might. Yes, even the US. But our understanding of how the world is must change.
The 20th-century framework of developed and developing nations no longer works. Consider the sophisticated response from Abu Dhabi to the pandemic against the shambolic series of indecisions in the UK, for example. Can we continue to pretend that the latter is “developed” and the former a member of the “developing” fraternity?
As the West turns inward and battles decades of unequal development, new alliances are being formed in the 85 world that will define future knowledge economies. New centers of economic activity such as Dubai and Singapore will be this generation’s New York and London.
Even the growth of technology isn’t immune to these shifts. While Silicon Valley might have a hold on the tech sector for the time being, new platforms and products from the 85 world are already vying for global markets.
While many may worry about the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei and its possible connection to the Communist Party, there is less doubt that out of China has come a formidable technology company. And the recent efforts by US President Donald Trump’s administration to ban the popular Chinese social-media platform TikTok is a reminder of the software prowess to be found in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan.
The pandemic has demonstrated how the West is at war with itself when it comes to efficient government. And efficient governance no longer is synonymous with the West. Many countries in the Middle East and Asia are taking better care of their citizens. Income inequality is set to become magnified in North America and Europe.
Whether judged by economic, social or political benchmarks, the developed versus developing world divide now makes little sense. To be sure, the shift began years ago; the Covid-19 pandemic merely drew our attention to it.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
Joseph Dana, based between South Africa and the Middle East, is editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab that explores change in emerging markets and its global impact.