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Alternative Futures

28 July 2008

Alternative Futures

 By Gwynne Dyer

You have to hand it to the economics team at Goldman Sachs. It was they who came up with the concept of the “BRICs”: the four big economies, in Brazil, Russia, India and China, that were going to catch up with and then overtake the big economies of the developed world. More recently they added the “Next Eleven”: middle-sized developing countries like Turkey, Indonesia and Mexico that will also grow fast enough to overtake their old-rich counterparts in the next generation.

Back in 2006, Goldman Sachs predicted that the Chinese economy would surpass that of the United States in the early 2040s, with the Indian economy not far behind. But now the Goldman Sachs team has put out a new set of forecasts.

The Chinese economy, they predict, will overtake the US economy around 2025, not in the 2040s, and will be twice as big by 2050. India’s economy by 2050 will still be slightly smaller than that of the United States, but the economies of Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and Mexico will all be bigger than that of the next-largest old-rich country, Britain.

The changes in the pecking order are equally dramatic further down. Turkey’s economy in 2050 will be bigger than Japan’s, France’s or Germany’s, and both Nigeria and the Philippines will have larger economies than Canada and Italy. Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia will all have bigger economies than Spain.

The predicted changes in per capita income by 2050 are less radical, though still impressive. The United States and the United Kingdom are neck-and-neck at the top, just as they are now, with Canada only slightly behind. Koreans are substantially richer than Japanese — $80,000 per annum versus $63,000 — and the Chinese still bring up the rear in East Asia with a mere $50,000 a year.

But hang on a minute. $50,000 a year is slightly higher than the present per capita income in the US or Britain. In 2050 there will be around one and a half billion Chinese, and if they have an average per capita income of $50,000 a year then most of them will be leading a fairly lavish middle-class lifestyle. How is this compatible with what we know about the world’s resources of energy, food and other commodities, and about the likely course of climate change?

Goldman Sachs is providing surprise-free projections of current trends. This is a useful exercise, because it sets the larger framework in which the inevitable surprises will take place. But that is all it is, because no forty-year stretch of history is free of surprises.

In the past forty years we have seen the rise to great wealth of the oil-exporting states of the Arabian peninsula, but a crash in the predicted Iranian growth rate after the 1979 revolution. We have seen the disappointment of the high expectations most people held for newly independent African countries in the 1960s, and the sudden high growth rates of most Asian countries in the 1980s and 1990s. We have seen the collapse of the Soviet empire and the expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe.

Few economic analysts in 1968 predicted any of this, any more than they foresaw globalisation, the internet or the rise of the euro. History does not run on rails, and none of those things was certain to happen (though some had a much higher probability of happening than others). The same applies to the relationship between the present and the future: Goldman Sachs is offering us a point of departure for thinking about the future, not a map of it.

So what are some of the things that could derail this simple picture of a richer future in which the gap between rich and poor has narrowed sharply except for Africa? A mere shortage of oil or other commodities wouldn’t change the pecking order much, although it might lower everybody’s average income (except in the commodity-exporting countries). Local political upheavals might knock specific countries out of the running, like Iran in the 1980s or Russia in the 1990s, but that wouldn’t change the broader picture either.

The one “known unknown” that could do that is large-scale climate change, because it would strike some countries much harder than others, at least in the early phase. And the hardest-hit countries would include most of those that are now climbing rapidly in the rankings.

Countries in the tropics and the sub-tropics are likely to be hit early and hard by climate change, while most of those in the temperate climate zone will suffer relatively little until a good deal later in the process. Countries like Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, India and Iran will suffer diminished rainfall and declining food production, and even China, although mostly in the temperate zone, will struggle as the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau that feed most of its major rivers melt away.

Since the countries that suffer least, like the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Japan, are also the ones that produced most of the greenhouse-gas emissions that have caused the current warming, this will probably result in some very bitter exchanges between North and South. But it also means that the economic pecking order in 2050 may be less different from today’s than Goldman Sachs predicts.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“In the past…map of it”)

Why is Burma Like That?

9 May 2008

Why is Burma Like That?

By Gwynne Dyer

The Burmese regime is not to blame for the powerful cyclone that struck the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon early this month, killing up to a hundred thousand people. But it certainly will be to blame for the next wave of deaths if aid does not soon reach the survivors.

A hundred years ago, the victims of such a catastrophe were on their own, but there are now well-established routines for getting help in quickly from outside. We saw them at work in the same region during the tsunami that killed at least twice as many people in 2004. Nothing could be done for those who died in the first fury of the event, but relatively few died from disease, injuries, exposure or sheer hunger or thirst in the days and weeks that followed.

Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, the nations worst hit by the 2004 tsunami, are reasonably well-run countries that were able to help their own stricken citizens, and they had no hesitation in welcoming international aid as well. Burma (which got off lightly in 2004) is very different. The question is: why?

What sane government would block the entry of foreigners bringing exactly the kind of help that is needed people whose professional lives are devoted to disaster relief when at least a tenth of the country’s people are living in the open, with little access to food or clean water? The short answer is that the generals who rule Burma are ill-educated, superstitious, fearful men whose first priority is protecting their power and their privileges.

They almost lost both during the popular demonstrations led by Buddhist monks last year, and they are terrified that letting large numbers of foreigners in now might somehow destabilise the situation again. They are sitting atop a volcano, and they know it.

But that is not really a complete answer, for it begs the question: why has Burma fallen into the hands of people like that not just for a few years, but for four and a half decades? Thailand has the occasional short-lived military coup, Indonesia had its problems with Sukarno and Suharto, and Cambodia had the horrors of Year Zero, but no other country in the region has been misgoverned so badly for so long.

It seems incredible now, when neighbouring Thailand has four times Burma’s per capita income, that at independence in 1948 Burma was the richest country in South-East Asia. With huge resources, a high literacy rate, and good infrastructure by the standards of the time (due to the British empire’s obsession with railways and irrigation projects), it seemed fated to succeed. Instead it has drifted steadily downwards, and is now the poorest country in the region.

The problem is the army, obviously, but why is the army such a problem? Perhaps it is the legacy of the “Thirty Comrades.” Rarely has such a small group of people dominated a whole country’s history for so long.

The Thirty Comrades were a group of young Burmese students (average age 24) who went abroad in early 1941 to seek military training so they could come home and launch a rebellion against British rule. Most of them were more or less Communist in orientation, and their original intention was to get training from the Chinese Communists. However, by chance they fell in with the Japanese instead.

They returned under the wing of the Japanese invaders at the end of the year as the “Burma Independence Army,” but switched sides in 1944 when it became clear that the Japanese would lose the war. They combined the authoritarian traditions of the Imperial Japanese Army with the ruthless ideological certainty of militant Marxism, and they dominated the army of the new republic from its independence in 1948.

It was this army, the nastiest behavioural stew imaginable, that seized power in 1962 and has ruled Burma ever since. The last of the Thirty Comrades, Ne Win, only retired in 1988, and continued to exercise great influence from behind the scenes until only ten years ago.

Whatever ideology the army once had is long gone, and it has become so corrupt that Burma now ties with Somalia for last place on Transparency International’s corruption index. The country exists merely to serve its armed forces, which have never shown any hesitation in shooting citizens who question their right to rule.

Its commanders are fully aware that most Burmese hate their rulers, and fear that the presence of large number of foreigners might serve as a spark for another popular uprising. Even if another million and a half lives depend on the rapid delivery of emergency aid to the desperate survivors in the delta, as Oxfam fears, the army will severely restrict the entry of foreign aid personnel as long as it can resist the international pressure to let them in.

Hundreds are probably dying each hour who could be saved if the food, shelter, water purification equipment and medical teams could pour in as they usually do after a disaster, but the army is half a million strong, so nobody is going to fight their way in. The Burmese, as usual, are on their own.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“A hundred…why”)

Update on the Family Quarrel

23 June 2006

Update on the Family Quarrel

By Gwynne Dyer

The past year has been one of the worst in recent history for relations between Muslims and “the West” (as the part of the world formerly called “Christendom” is now known). According to the Pew Global Attitude Project for 2006, an opinion survey conducted in thirteen mainly Christian or Muslim countries by the Pew Research Center in Washington, the majorities who saw relations between the West and Islam as “generally bad” ranged from 53 percent in Russia and Indonesia (the lowest) to highs of 70 percent in Germany and 84 percent in Turkey.

There were purely local causes for some of the extreme reactions, like resentment among Turks at being seen as problem candidates for European Union membership simply because they are Muslims. The violent uproar in January over Danish newspaper cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad doubtless influenced the answers of many respondents, both Muslim and Western, in a poll conducted only months later. But military confrontations that killed a lot of people were the core of the problem.

Western armies fought local insurgents in two occupied Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. Suicide bomb attacks by young British Muslims killed 52 people in London, and the nightmare images of 9/11 were never far from the surface in the United States. And the Arab-Israeli fight over the land between the Jordan river and the sea entered its seventieth bloody year.

Seventy years give or take a few, depending on whether you date that long conflict from the great Palestinian revolt against Jewish immigration in 1936 or from some other clash of that period. Without that open sore, however, the deep resentment of Muslims at having been conquered by European empires (as they all were, apart from the Turks) would probably have mostly died down by now. It is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has kept it alive for generations of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.

The US and British invasion of Iraq was a ghastly mistake that confirmed existing suspicions in the Muslim world: its declared motives were so transparently false that Muslims everywhere were driven to look for ulterior, undeclared motives — like a Western crusade against Islam. On the other hand, Muslims have remained in denial about how their own internal conflicts have spilled over into anti-Western terrorism. Majorities in most of the Muslim countries polled still refuse to believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks in the United States, taking refuge in fantasies about Zionist or Central Intelligence Agency plots.

Descend from high politics to cultural stereotypes, and it starts to look like a classic family quarrel. A majority of Muslims see Westerners as violent and immoral, while the view from the reverse perspective is that Muslims are violent and fanatical. Majorities in every Western country polled see Muslims as disrespectful of women, and majorities in every Muslim country polled except Turkey see Westerners as disrespectful of women. But then, it IS a family quarrel.

You cannot have a “clash of civilisations” between Muslims and “Westerners” (Christians and Jews, by belief or at least by cultural descent) because they are members of the same civilisation. They are the twin descendants of the old classical civilisation of the Near East and the Mediterranean world. That world was divided almost fourteen centuries ago between competing but clearly related religions — the Christians of seventh-century Syria and Egypt who were the first to face Muslim armies surging out of Arabia saw Islam as a new Christian heresy — but it remains a single civilisation whose fundamental cultural values are largely shared.

The surviving half of the formerly Christian world subsequently spread its faith and its genes across the Americas and Australia, while Islam conquered much of southern Asia (and the two religions divided Africa between them). Together, they account today for more than half of the world’s population, so the old family quarrel affects a lot of people.

Muslim-Western disputes are so emotional precisely because they are between family members: neither of the estranged twin cultures brings the same amount of reproach and resentment to its occasional disputes with peoples who belong to entirely different traditions. But the fact that they do share so much history and so many values — they are all, as Muslims put it, “peoples of the Book” — means that the possibility of reconciliation is also ever present.

The most interesting statistics in the Pew survey are those about Muslim minorities living in the West, who were interviewed as a separate group for the first time this year. Muslims elsewhere may see Westerners as disrespectful of women, but Muslims who actually live among Westerners overwhelmingly say the opposite — by a 73 percent majority in Germany, a 77 percent majority in France, an 82 percent majority in Spain. Even in Britain, despite the police harassment that has alienated so many Muslims since last July’s bombs in London, a narrow majority agrees.

The same phenomenon is evident across a broad range of issues — and the huge non-Muslim majorities in Britain, France and the United States also have largely positive views of the Muslims in their midst despite all the old history and all the recent clashes and controversies. To know them may not be to love them, exactly, but it does seem to breed tolerance, and maybe even solidarity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Seventy…Indonesia”; and “The surviving…people”)

Preventing Pandemics

13 October 2005

Preventing Pandemics

 By Gwynne Dyer

It would be funny if it were not so serious. As migratory birds carry the avian influenza virus west across Europe, Britain is following in the footsteps of Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Turkey and asking hunters to shoot down as many incoming ducks and geese as possible. They have been issued with bird-flu testing kits to see if their victims are carrying the dreaded virus, but they really have little to worry about: all the cases of direct bird-to-human infection, now over a hundred in total, have occurred on family farms in South-East Asia.

The panic over bird flu is not wholly misplaced. If the H5N1 strain that is currently ravaging wild bird flocks learns to pass between human beings easily while retaining even a tenth of its current lethality — the death-rate among people who catch it directly from birds has been as high as 50 percent — the world would face an influenza pandemic as grave as the one in 1918-19. That one, known as the “Spanish influenza”, killed between fifty and a hundred million people at a time when the world’s population was only a third of what it is now.

Recent research has shown that the 1918 virus was also a purely avian strain that jumped to human beings, but then changed enough to become highly infectious between people. Its peculiar pattern of mortality, with a much higher death rate than usual among healthy young adults (half the victims of the Spanish flu pandemic were between 18 and 40 years old), is reappearing in the cases of direct bird-to-human transmission of the past two years. If the current avian virus also develops the ability to move easily between people, the world is in trouble.

Only in the past couple of decades has it been widely understood that almost all the quick-killer infectious diseases that have emerged to ravage human populations since the rise of civilisation come from our own domestic animals. Human beings in the wild, like other predators that live in small, isolated groups of a few dozen individuals or less, would rarely have fallen victim to the quick-killer viruses and bacteria whose natural habitat is animals that live in large herds.

Even if such a disease did jump from some prey animal to the hunters who killed it, and even if it then adapted enough to infect the other members of the hunter-gatherer band, the new, human-infectious form would usually die out when it had run through those few dozen people. Only when civilisation brought people together in large groups, and those people began living in constant close contact with domesticated versions of herd-dwelling animals, did the quick-killer diseases that often devastate those species begin to adapt permanently to the human species.

Over the past three or four thousand years this process has given us a whole range of highly infectious new human diseases, including quite lethal ones like smallpox, cholera, typhoid, and the Black Plague.

Influenza, which colonised civilised human beings via their flocks of domesticated birds, is usually a relatively mild member of this family of diseases, but the flu virus mutates with great ease, and occasionally it assumes a highly lethal form.

As our population has grown into the billions and the volume and speed of travel have soared, we have become more vulnerable to these “emergent” diseases, but they are unlikely to emerge on a British or even a Russian farm. Eighty years ago the “Spanish influenza” virus probably made its way from wild ducks into chickens and thence into human beings on a Kansas farm, but modern commercial farming does not involve people and their animals sharing the same living spaces. Moreover, if some disease does cross the species barrier anyway, its human victims are far more likely to get early treatment (and, if necessary, quarantine).

The places where the style of farming and the density of human and animal populations still favour the easy movement of diseases from animals into people are mostly in Asia, particularly in South-East Asia. That is where all the new flu viruses have emerged in the past half-century, where the SARS virus came from two years ago, and where other emergent diseases are most likely to appear. As a first step, it would make sense to create a network of trained observers who would report on any unusual disease patterns among the local farm families or their animals.

This is being done in Thailand, and much poorer Vietnam is making a start, but Indonesia has done little, the Chinese refuse to say what they are doing, and some of the smaller countries have done nothing. The developed countries would be wise to support these reporting networks, since they offer the best chance of stopping a new disease before it reaches the rest of the world.

In the longer run, farmers throughout the region must be encouraged to change their long-established ways of raising poultry, pigs and other animals. That is a tall order, but similar shifts in farming practice have already happened elsewhere, and at least the region’s economy is developing fast enough that it can provide markets for a more commercial style of farming and non-farm jobs for those no longer needed on the land.

The countryside wouldn’t be nearly so picturesque at the end of the process, but the world wouldn’t be facing so many new diseases, either.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Recent…trouble”; and “This…world”)