Peace and Conflict

BELOW AVERAGE : Reflections after the presentation on Globalisation and Cultural Change

Recently, the group Beyond Borders – a networking initiative of the British Council for young people in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, UK and Sri Lanka – organised a presentation by Professor Christopher Lingle in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Being a fan of cultural globalisation and liking the idea internationalisation – I was eager to attend.

Sadly, Lingle’s presentation, titled “Globalisation and Cultural Change”, came across to me as a rant by a neoliberal-aligned ‘evangelist’ than a talk by a neoliberal-aligned academic. I don’t have a problem with academics presenting their views and ideas, but Lingle’s style and substance was superficial and very disappointing.

Globalisation and culture are fascinating fields. Unfortunately, Lingle simplified the topic by asserting at the very beginning that the only way forward for countries like Sri Lanka was for their political leaders to open up domestic markets for global competition – one of the core goals of neoliberalism. He engaged in a hysterical attack on trade unions and implied that anyone opposing (his version of) globalisation was backward.

There were a number of interrupting questions from the audience which may have surprised and sidetracked ‘Sir’, the term used by one of the Beyond Borders members to introduce him on to the stage. Perhaps Lingle had assumed that the early evening talk would have been a breeze – a pep talk for a young generation on how best to develop their country.

I participate in and celebrate the possibilities of globalisation or internationalisation. I enjoy interacting and engaging and sometimes adopting aspects of other cultures. Paypal and eBay are fantastic. I love traveling to other countries, however I am saddened by the fact that friends who have Sri Lankan passports can’t travel as freely as someone with a ‘Western’ passport.

If borders were opened up to market forces, would people – especially from places like Sri Lanka – be able to cross in to Western borders freely, and live and work alongside their fellow humans as equals? Would they be required to health checks and a large bank balance before entering the United Kingdom? Would textile workers in Sri Lanka be paid the same wage as their peers in Italy? Would the cost of living be equalised across all countries? Why are their so many call centres in countries like India? Would local NGO workers receive similar packages to their international colleagues if their skills levels were equal? Would the beggars stop begging? I had hoped Lingle could have explained how equality, in all its aspects, works within a globalised open market system, but unfortunately he didn’t touch the subject.

Obviously, I am no economist – but as you have just read, I have a few questions about neoliberalisation.

I find nothing problematic about the idea of an open market, as long as it is open for everyone. On a small scale, and in person-to-person trading, an open and fair market appears to work. But it seems the global market place is an unfair place (unless I can find some good answers to the above questions).

Lingle did acknowledge the existence of tariffs and subsidies for farmers in the United States and Europe, but unfortunately he did not contextualise this within his overall agenda of promoting the opening up of domestic markets.

There is a growing movement that critiques neoliberalism. My understanding is that the so-called anti-globalisation activists who protest at meetings and summits of political and corporate leaders are concerned primarily about the lack of fairness in trade between the so-called developed (ie. monetarily rich) countries and countries like Sri Lanka. In his talk, I felt Lingle misrepresented their position, and implied that anyone who opposed globalisation was somehow backward, blocking the path to progress and freedom.

For me, there is a difference between cultural globalisation (ie. the exchange and sharing of human values, art, fashion, etc…) and economic globalisation (a global open market) – but Lingle seemed to mix the two ideas up constantly. But he’s the economist, so perhaps I have it wrong.

Lingle also accused Asian political leaders of earning excessive amounts of money. Of course, there is some truth to this, so I asked if he could compare the financial habits of Asian leaders with their counterparts in Western nations such as the United States. Lingle’s response was amusing. He claimed that United States politicians make money after they retire and cited Bill Clinton’s involvement in the international lecture circuit as an example. Someone behind me mentioned Halliburton but either Lingle didn’t hear him or didn’t want to engage further in the topic.

Professor Lingle’s presentation style targeted a stereotyped version of a young audience and his argument was simplistic: Sri Lankan youth obviously desire the freedoms of the West, and the only way they can achieve such freedoms is to ensure that the whole of Sri Lanka is turned in to a free trade zone.

Unfortunately for him, his tactic was exposed when he pointed at two young women in the audience wearing sleeveless tops. Lingle inquired if they would have been able to wear such clothing a few decades ago, and not waiting for a response, claimed their dress style as an indicator that Sri Lanka’s youth are obviously ‘modernising’ and desiring clothing that he ignorantly labelled as ‘Western’.

Lingle was quickly reminded by the audience that not so long ago in Sri Lanka, the women moved around bare-breasted, contradicting his attempt to link dress sense with economic globalisation, which according to him, somehow delivers us with limitless freedoms such as being able to wear sleeveless tops. It would have been interesting if he could have told us of any links between conservative values and neo-liberalism, or if Christian ideology shapes the West’s foreign and trade policies. I don’t think it does, but the Professor may have been able to enlightened us further.

By the end of the talk, Lingle appeared frustrated and concluded by effectively apologising for being white and from the United States. He said he wished he was an “African woman” implying that we, the audience would have probably taken his ideas as gospel if he was brown-skinned. As someone said afterwards, his comment is an insult to the intelligence of the audience who were present. If the West wishes to convince Sri Lankans of the virtues of opening their domestic markets, they need to send someone more sophisticated next time.

At the end of the day, Lingle is nothing more than a salesman for ideas that have had plenty of exposure already. There’s nothing fresh or innovative about the neoliberalism he presented.

Lingle’s profile mentions his “independent consultancy that advises clients on economic and political risk in emerging market economies”. Let’s hope the Professor doesn’t feel he has to get dressed up as an African woman when he makes his next presentation to his clients!