Globalization is an ugly but ubiquitous word coined in the late 1980s to describe the increasing interconnectedness of humanity, especially in the economic sphere. Its essence is the free movement of money, resources and ideas throughout the world as part of a global, competitive market economy.
It is a process that has been going on for a long time through improvements in communications—from the penny post to the telegraph, the telephone, radio, television and finally to the Internet. But it came into its own in the 1980s with the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism over the collectivist socialist economic models.
In the 1980s, the world moved towards competitive markets at the national and international levels, increasingly free of government controls. Subsidies were dismantled. Exchange rates were floated, leaving them to find their own levels according to supply and demand.
Money was moved about freely to find the best rates of return. Government services were privatized and put out to tender. In the increasingly competitive world, corporations became more powerful, while governments became less so.
What have been the benefits of globalization?
Underpinning the process of globalization is the belief that free competitive markets, complemented by the free movement of information, ideas and finances, will be good for everyone.
If individuals, corporations and nations pursue their own interests, making the most of their comparative advantages in a barrier-free world, all will prosper, so the theory goes.
In fact, living standards have risen spectacularly in many countries. There has also been a dramatic reduction in absolute poverty. And the communications revolution through satellites and the Internet has transformed society. In one sense, it has drawn people together as never before.
And the downside?
In a competitive world, where self-interest is the driving force, there are winners and losers.
Many nations have suffered from adverse terms of trade, which means that prices for their exports (mainly agricultural) have declined, while the cost of their imports (mainly manufactured) have soared. At the same time, crippling debt repayments have diverted revenue from health and education.
There have been horrendous environmental costs. Huge swathes of rainforest have been burnt and bulldozed to make way for “productive” enterprises. Mining sites have poisoned river systems. Indigenous people have been displaced to make way for dams and plantations.
In the field of communications, there is a dark side as well. The new technology is equally available to Osama bin Laden and the Ku Klux Klan. Such extremists feed on the anxieties of the new age of globalization.
The spread of Western ideas and lifestyles (e.g. Coke, McDonalds and rock music) threaten local cultural identity and social cohesion.
What are our responsibilities as Christian global citizens?
There is no room for indifference to the way the world is run. Christians must engage the current debate on globalization, recognizing its opportunities and challenges.
Globalization offers incredible opportunities. The ease of communication, transport and travel can be used to do much good in empowering the poor and disadvantaged.
Should we neglect these opportunities, future generations will look back on this generation of Christians (as we look back on those who allowed the perpetuation of slavery or the removal of aboriginal children from their families) and condemn us for not doing more.
Positive aspects notwithstanding, global capitalism is in deep crisis because it has placed money at the center of life. We might recognize the importance of the market for a healthy economy, but we need to reject giving the market ultimate status, allowing consumer goods to define personal identity and leaving the plight of the poor to market forces.
This needs to be named for what it is: idolatry. While Christians do battle with modernity on moral issues, we often treat as neutral other issues that come from modernity such as individualism, materialism and consumerism.
In this way, the free market is treated as a value-free economic mechanism that produces only positive outcomes. This is not so. Although globalization is contributing to the creation of more open societies and has brought economic benefits to many, it often means the massive exclusion of the poor.
As Christians, we are called to integral discipleship, involving responsible and sustainable use of the resources of God’s creation. We are called to transform the moral, intellectual, economic, cultural and political dimensions of our lives.
The church, in its rich diversity, has a unique role as a truly global community. Christians need to network and cooperate to face the challenges of globalization. The church needs a unified global voice to respond to the damage caused by globalization to both human beings and the environment.
Perhaps the church’s most critical social task in our generation is to offer a compelling alternative to the unjust imbalances in the world economic order and the values of its consumer culture.
God is calling us to build global twin towers of justice and peace. We need to create a coalition of compassion.
Les Fussell, national director, and Andrew Macintosh, projects administrator, work for Australian Baptist World Aid.
Editor’s Note: To read Fussell and Macintosh’s full paper in PDF format, go to http://www.abwaid.org/Globalisation.pdf.