Monday, February 05, 2007

"Disconnectedness defines danger"

“Eradicating disconnectedness is the defining security task of our age, as well as a supreme moral cause in the cases of those who suffer it against their will. Just as important, however, by expanding the connectivity of globalization, we increase peace and prosperity planet-wide.”—Thomas Barnett, political and military strategist and author of Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty First Century

THE Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) has just announced it is exploring “improved air agreements” with several countries to boost economic growth. Among the countries being considered are South Korea, Canada, Oman, Libya, Russia, Cambodia and Palau. This is a great idea that we should pursue to the utmost. In fact, we should have wide-ranging initiatives that should include most, if not all, our trading partners in the Asia Pacific Region. Why? The reason is summed up in a word: “connectivity.”

According to political scientist Thomas Barnett, the information revolution has brought enormous changes on the emerging financial, technological and logistical architecture of the global economy, the least of which is the increased movement of money, goods, services and ideas.

Increasingly, countries that took pains to understand this phenomenon and took advantage of it are flourishing through rising flows of foreign direct investments, innovative ideas and the mobility of talents. We could count in China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and many other fast-growing countries in the Asia-Pacific region as excellent examples.

The Philippines has actually started to benefit from the rising connectivity through labor migration, the inflows of foreign direct investments in electronics, and business process outsourcing. These forces alone have globalized the Philippines to the extent that it has partially decoupled the dynamics of the Philippine economy from the country’s rambunctious politics. More than a decade ago, questions on a presidency’s legitimacy and rumors about military adventurism were enough to cause a crashing bust after a short period of boom and relative calm.

Not anymore. These days, even leaders of business and strategic sectors can make a political statement or comment on issues of governance, without worrying that the seriousness of the subject could hurt the markets. Or that political statements can distract people from productive work.

Apparently there is much more to do these days other than becoming—if one is not that astute—cannon fodder for certain political entrepreneurs whose objectives are not necessarily congruent with the national interest.

Still, we have to do much more if only to bring the benefits of connectivity to the broader segment of society. These days, those who are making a killing from rising connectivity are the urban-based elites and the middle class while the underclass remain at the margins, their wrinkled and expectant faces—in Barnettspeak—pressed against the glass.

This is because our economic planners have not really developed a strategy on how to respond to globalization well. While our core cities are effectively articulated with global cities and the international centers of trade and commerce, our hinterlands remain isolated, economically and culturally, thus heightening economic and social polarization between cities and regions.

This state of affairs is not sustainable. The rapid pace of growth in certain sectors of society amid continuing widespread want and penury may generate a revolution of rising expectations that could eventually prove disruptive.

Modernization per se supposedly creates contentment and calm, but history proves that the process of change, when left to its own devices, could trigger spasms when it’s fueled by stark inequality in wealth and opportunities. That is why policies like the promotion of greater air linkages with other countries, together with other redistributive measures, are so important if we have to achieve a kind of growth that is inclusive and really developmental.

Why is there so much instability in certain parts of Mindanao and the Visayas? Why have some areas of the country become lairs of daydreamers who kill, maim and rape in their struggles for some puritanical utopia?

To a great extent, it’s because of the disconnectedness of these places from the vortex of change, growth and progress. And this disconnectedness is almost literal: no roads through which farmers can bring their produce to the market, no bridges, no electricity, no potable water, no sanitation, irrigation, no schools, no health centers, no cellular phones, no Internet—therefore no chance for their restless young people to dream dreams and aspire to better lives.

In the words of Barnett, disconnectedness “defines danger. Disconnectedness allows bad actors to flourish by keeping entire societies detached from the global community and under their dictatorial control… [It] allows dangerous transnational actors to exploit the resulting chaos to their own dangerous ends.”

Air agreements are good policies simply because they promote reciprocity. An air agreement is a practical measure in a period when the Doha Round of Trade Negotiations is stuck on the ground. But moving a little further actually wouldn’t hurt. In fact, air agreements are a second best policy to an all-out opening of the skies to promote greater competition and efficiency. The idea now really is bringing in more passenger traffic and business and that option is the surest bet.

Of course, we don’t have to stop at opening the skies; we should also open the seas to promote interisland shipping and trade. For a country of more than 7,000 islands, a competitive and vibrant interisland ports and shipping industry that could only be brought about by greater openness and competition is the most sensible thing to have.

In the course of this initiative, we may have to bring in greater participation by the rest to the world in infrastructure development as well as utilities. That way, we may bring progress fast to those dark, isolated corners of the country where people have never known government and service—and thus have no stake in building communities.

Reaching out is not an option. It’s a matter of survival.

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