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The impact of social injustice, interview with Jan Pronk
by Eva Beaujon

Prominent European politician and United Nations official Jan Pronk analyzes the destructive effects of globalization as it has spread competitive capitalization throughout the world.

Jan Pronk has had a distinguished career, both as a prominent European politician and as a senior United Nations official. He has played an important role in promoting sustainable economic and environmental development and served as the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. In the 1980s he was Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations. He has also served as the treasurer of the Brandt Commission.

He served three terms as Dutch Minister of Development Co-operation and one term as Minister for the Environment: Prime Minister Wim Kok described him as the ìminister for the national conscienceî.

From mid 2004 until the end of 2006 Pronk lived in Khartoum, as the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Sudan, where he led the UN peace keeping operation (UNMIS).

Now living back in the Netherlands, he is Professor in Theory and Practice of International Development at the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague. Recently he was appointed chairman of the commission formed to write the election program for the Dutch Labour Party for the elections for the European Parliament.

Jan Pronk was interviewed for Share International by Eva Beaujon.

Share International: Reports are showing that the Millennium Development Goals may not be reached by 2015. You have stated that it is precisely the success of globalization that is one of the major causes of increasing inequality between rich and poor, and the increase in the number of poor.

Jan Pronk: Increasing inequality is a fact. There are numerous indicators for this. The main problem is that globalization has gone in a direction where everything revolves around facilitating the world market. This has resulted in some profiting from that globalization, while others are disadvantaged. Inequality is growing as globalization speeds up, with some people getting richer more quickly, while others are getting poorer at a faster pace. People are increasingly marginalized. They are the very poor, the people who are continuously driven from their land to vulnerable areas, which are hardly viable ecologically, because less and less water is available due to climate change. In our own society, ëillegal' immigrants are not welcomed. As the scarcity of water, energy and fertile land grows, the struggle for access to those scarce resources increases, and those with a head start will appropriate the resources and keep others out – another cause of the rising inequality.

It is no longer a question of the very rich against the very poor, as was the case in the earlier stages of the capitalist process. A ëdemocratization' of capitalism has taken place so that we now have a ëtop layer' plus the world's broad ëmiddle class'. The very wealthy and ordinary middle class are doing well. Most inhabitants of Western countries, with a few exceptions, belong to that group, so there is also a measure of responsibility for the ordinary citizen of the West who profits from that process. No one is guilty, but everyone is responsible.

What we also see is that Western social democratic parties, including my own (Dutch) Labour Party, are no longer dedicated to the welfare of the weakest members of society as they were in the past when their focus was to help the working class. The Labour Party has ëdeveloped' along with the erstwhile working class, which has now become part of the middle class. They have forgotten the poor, the illegal immigrants in our countries and the poor in the rest of the world. They have also softened their previously critical attitude towards capitalism, while capitalism itself has grown in strength through globalization.

SI: The growing gap is not only taking place between countries, but within those countries – Western and developing countries alike. You were involved in trying to help resolve the conflict in Darfur. How does this gap affect a country like Sudan?

JP: Globalization has made it easy to invest around the globe: the new expanded middle class trades within its ranks throughout the world. Countries are internally divided; just as there is a wealthy class in Khartoum, in China and India, for example, there are also hundreds of millions of people in those countries who are left far behind. The Developing World is replicating what the industrialized world did to them – the wealthy of the developing world are now discriminating against their own poor compatriots.

The government of Sudan does not spend one dinar on providing safe drinking water or education for Southern Sudan or Darfur, causing a further increase in inequality. Khartoum is booming: there is oil, a lot of investment and expanding industrialization. Politically it is a dictatorial system, where potential revolt by the poor is suppressed by force. The worldwide middle class has the means and the power and it decides how much of the national budget goes to education or healthcare, for instance, and they tend to want it to be used mostly for their benefit.

SI: One of the greatest challenges of this century is the climate. The world is warming up faster than was anticipated. We know what needs be done but implementation is very slow.

JP: Western countries are responsible for most of the CO2 in the atmosphere today, which is the cause of the rise in temperatures we are experiencing. Western countries were slow to start taking measures to combat climate change. It is important that we reach the targets agreed on in 2001 for the year 2012, otherwise, we lose credibility in our talks about the next phase with countries like China and India, that did not have to participate in the first phase. These and other countries are becoming large polluters and therefore need to participate in the next phase, but they will only do so if Western countries honour the promises they made for 2012. [The date set by the Kyoto protocol for the developed countries to have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions below the individual levels specified.]

SI: I get the impression that people don't fully realise how serious it is.

JP: I think people are more aware, but we need political leadership to take the right decisions based on that realization. People will not do it on their own, except for a small minority. Once again, that middle class, a large section of the population in our Western societies, will not want to consume less, so the lead has to come from the public sector. The same applies to large corporations. Car manufacturers could produce much cleaner cars, but they delay because of the costs. Oil companies don't want to invest in clean energy; they try to give the impression that they are sustainable companies, but they definitely are not. As soon as it's decision time they put on the brakes. No one wants to lose their economic advantage, so no one takes the initiative. It has to be done together.

In Europe, European co-operation is important to achieve this. The European Commission is adopting concrete proposals for the member states for the period after 2012. These proposals are not overly ambitious, mind you; for example, 20 per cent sustainable energy by 2020 seems like a lot but, in fact, it is only just adequate. The next step is negotiations about what the proposals will mean in detail for each individual country. That will be a difficult process and those battles will be fought in Brussels. I have a certain degree of confidence that the way we have organized the European Union will force us in the direction of more sustainability on an equal basis. This system does work, but it takes a lot of time.

SI: There are a number of very dangerous conflicts in the world at present, one of these being Afghanistan. The Netherlands is part of the NATO operation, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Why are you critical of this operation?

JP: It is a large and violent conflict, which cannot be solved by military means alone – as America and NATO (including the Netherlands) are trying to do.

The Taliban are not a group of terrorists, but a nationalist movement that sees all foreigners as occupiers who must be expelled from Afghanistan. They have a political objective. Secondly, they have their roots in the population. The Dutch government stated in a recent letter that the people of Afghanistan are being misled, but that is a very short-sighted view, because there are very many Pashtun (the largest population group in Afghanistan) that agree with this movement. The Taliban suppress the people but are part of the people. When the people turn away from them they start suppressing them again. The population does not really have much of an alternative. This movement is here to stay; it is a historical fact. It is rooted in Afghanistan's past. There is constant recruitment of young people with more and more feelings of revenge, coming from a much larger area than Afghanistan alone.

All this means that you have to talk to them and be willing to accept them as part of the system, part of the nation, part of the power. And who are you anyway? You are a foreigner.

If you ignore them, you are denying all parties the chance of a solution – which means you are sending your troops on an impossible mission. So Dutch soldiers are being killed, based on a political objective that is totally unfeasible and wrong.

You can send troops to carry out peace missions, if you link it to a political solution where your ëopponent' is seen to be a participant in Afghanistan in the future. At present our troops are not peace troops, they are war troops.

Jan Pronk explained that there are more situations in the world where an opponent cannot be defeated because he has his roots in the population.

He continues: You have Hamas, for instance, and Hezbollah and in Somalia, the Islamic Courts. Some groups commit human rights violations, but that is largely due to the conflict becoming increasingly violent. Ignoring them will make them more violent, making it harder to talk to them. And it will become harder to justify it to your own population, because of the violations of human rights they are committing.

Secondly, because these groups are not succeeding politically, the population in these countries turns away from them and chooses more radical, extreme positions: from PLO to Hamas, from Hamas to a more violent wing of Hamas, and from Hamas to Islamic Jihad. You get increasingly farther away from your objective – lasting peace. By excluding your opponent – you turned him into an opponent yourself – you are contributing to the continuation of the conflict and more victims. At some point, you will have to invite that opponent to the table.

I am all for peace troops and peace interventions for the protection of civilians, but it must be with the approval of the entire Security Council or with the approval of all parties concerned. Unilateral intervention, as happened in Iraq, only leads to more violence and war. Intervention disguised as peacekeeping, like in Afghanistan, is to the detriment of all in Afghanistan.

SI: What about the risk of these and other conflicts spreading?

JP: This happens because people elsewhere give explicit support to one side in the conflict, because they don't trust the international community, the US and the UN. Some factions use that distrust as a pretext not to have to solve their own conflict.

Another factor is that a number of conflicts are inherently ëtrans-national', that is to say, they are not contained within national borders; they are ethnic, tribal, political, cultural or religious in origin. The conflict directly impacts communities in other parts of the world, thereby extending even further. This explains why terrorist activities move to other parts of the globe.

Before the Iraq invasion, Jan Pronk spoke out and demonstrated against this war many times and warned that it would be a catastrophe. He believes it is essential that there be a parliamentary inquiry into the reasons the Dutch government chose to take part in the coalition. In an interview in a Dutch newspaper in September 2007 he said: ìHow can we trust a Prime Minister who lies about something as fundamental as the reasons for going to war?î and ìThe inquiry is not just for the purpose of looking back. I am worried about the threat of a war with Iran. And what will the Netherlands do then?î

SI: How could this have happened so easily?

JP: A country may be a so-called democracy but there is a power elite that can bend the facts to its will and purpose, can manipulate information and can present its own goals in a perfectly acceptable guise. You are selling something to your own population. That was very clearly the case with Iraq. Later, the same lies were sold to the international community. The invasion of Iraq was based on lies, American official lies. You ask how this could happen. Maybe there were certain vested interests in the US that did not want to correctly inform the President and vice-President. But as President and vice-President, you are also responsible for not being well informed – that is how democracy works. Other countries that support America, and continue accepting the same arguments and peddling them to their own people, share the responsibility for a breach of the international legal order.

Mr Pronk went on to outline what could be done to counter such situations.

JP: Strengthening the democratic process is of the utmost importance. You do it by aiming for as much openness, opposition and counter-intelligence as possible. Individual citizens must constantly be alert. You need a free press. There have to be political parties that can take over; that means leadership that leaves after a few years, so that you get another government. Let us hope it happens in the US. It was somewhat the case in England. The problem is that it doesn't automatically mean that there will be new and different policies. In the Netherlands, for example, a new government did not mean that an investigation into the war in Iraq was allowed to take place.

It goes on and on: governments have a lot of power to manipulate people's opinions, through the media and information processes. That worries me. There is more and more money for these purposes.

On the other hand, fortunately, you have the globalization of information through the internet as well as the increasing general level of education. Nevertheless, those in power have a big advantage and if they happen to be up to no good, they also have access to the military machine.

SI: Does the media play a part in keeping the lie going, especially if they are very commercialized?

PR: Yes, and in the US the media are totally commercialised. You have certain independent public media which are interesting, like C-SPAN, but there aren't many of them and viewer numbers are small. It is a very dangerous development when the general means of conveying culture are dominated by one value system. Naturally, it virtually guarantees the chances of the lies remaining intact.

Let's consider education. Changes in the education system in recent decades in most Western countries have led to education for the job market. Courses are shorter, and more job-oriented, including at university level and a lot of education is financed by business. So, yet another means of conveying culture becomes vulnerable and is under threat. Of course, people can found other universities and students can protest. All that is possible, because there is freedom, but it happens infrequently and on a small scale. Alternatively, it can lead to a sudden uprising. That is the case when people don't feel respected by society. Take, for example, groups on the margins of society economically, like the people in the banlieus (suburbs of social housing) in France. What you get is a violent uprising coming from another value system and not being understood by the ruling middle class who subsequently suppress such uprising with force.

I don't want to paint too black and white a picture, but there definitely is a process of manipulation going on, and of deliberately keeping people ignorant.

SI: The war against terror and the increasing number of internal conflicts have undermined the international legal system and the United Nations. Human rights have also suffered. How can we restore confidence in the UN?

JP: The UN has been weakened. It is increasingly losing legitimacy in the eyes of a large section of the world's population. This has to do with the appropriation of power by the Western countries that built the UN system. They want to hold on to it, but the result is that people in Asia and the Middle East do not want to accept it. Countries in these regions also see that little is being done to help solve their problems.

The United Nations is a good system and it is important to strengthen it by means of reforms that will make it legitimate again in the eyes of its detractors. The first thing the permanent members of the Security Council must realize is that it is in their own interest to make room for others to join. It will not be easy, but perhaps climate change or terrorism may lead them to conclude that tackling the world's problems is no longer possible without the help and support of other countries and that, therefore, excluded countries should participate in the decision-making process. Whereas now the marginalized countries just have to accept whatever is decided by the dominant powers.

We also need a rapid-reaction mechanism within the UN allowing for decisions to be taken that bypass the Security Council. This would mean strengthening the position of the Secretary General. He has gradually become a kind of public servant, with few powers of his own.

Another important issue is that of human rights. Many countries have dictatorships that oppress their minorities. This problem does not get onto the agenda of the Security Council because the sovereignty of states means that the member countries can block any such moves. Although other countries can call for such human rights issues to be put on the agenda it seldom happens since there is no real interest in doing so. You could create the possibility for minorities to place something on the agenda, even if their own government does not approve, and in this way bring the UN closer to the people.

SI: The Sudanese government is hindering the deployment of a UN peace force and because the troops of the African Union are practically non-functional at the moment, the refugee camps in Darfur have no protection. It looks as if the government can do whatever it wants. Does the international community have any means left to deal with this situation? And what is China's position with regard to Sudan?

JP: The UN should do a lot more. They could take economic sanctions or apply diplomatic or political pressure. But without China's co-operation nothing will have much effect. China is Sudan's most important economic partner and therefore one of the few countries that have influence in Sudan, but they are not taking advantage of their position.

The Chinese should realize that it is not in their interest to support the Sudanese government, because a situation could arise where their oil investments in Sudan are attacked and war breaks out again, making it impossible for them to get the oil. It is also in their interest to try to achieve a sustainable peace. They keep postponing it, because they hope war will not break out any time soon.

SI: Could you say something more about applying economic measures?

JP: Economic measures can be effective if you are willing to go far enough. In the US now, a lot of pressure is being put on Congress by young people, calling for the withdrawal of all American investments from Sudan. They are also trying to convince universities and churches not to do business with banks and companies having dealings with Sudan. It could have a snowball effect and lead to certain political effects. You have to put the pressure on; at present, the Sudanese government does not feel under any pressure at all.

SI: Have you noticed much of this concern among young people with regard to human rights violations?

JP: Yes, particularly in America and Canada; there are many movements involving young people who are putting pressure on their governments to take action against genocide. However, this pressure receives only lip service as a government response.

Young people there are a lot more active than here in Europe. I gave a talk in October 2007 at a genocide conference organized by McGill University in Montreal and in December at a conference on Darfur at Columbia University in New York. It is amazing how many action groups, conferences and institutes have been dedicated to genocide recently, especially in the US and Canada, and it is primarily young people taking the initiative. They refuse to accept this injustice. They are not demonstrating on the streets at present, but seek other ways to express their involvement.

SI: You are of the opinion that development policy should not be applied as it is now, because the countries that need help most are not receiving it.

JP: Practically all development aid goes to reasonably stable countries with reasonably good governance. But this is a waste of public funds, as these countries could come by sufficient private capital themselves and don't really need this help.

On the other hand, there are many societies, the so-called failing states and states in a situation of conflict, where nobody wants to invest because the risks are too high. These are precisely the states you should give aid to, particularly aid focused on the basics of little commercial interest, like water and primary education for girls. The latter is something the national government is seldom interested in. Much can go wrong, but this is where you need to take a public risk, instead of continuing along the path of certainties. Development processes are inherently conflictual; success is not assured. They are processes.

Gradually the situation arises where the interests of the help-giving agency become involved: aid given must not be allowed to fail, since it might jeopardize their careers.

There is so much bureaucracy. Everything has to have measurable results in the short term; this is the way we have come to organize the public sector. Look, for example, at our own healthcare sector, where we measure care in minutes while processes play no role. I think this is a form of abuse – we are perverting our public sector.

It is particularly the unstable countries with inadequate governments that should receive help, because if we don't give it, the result will be more misery, more human rights violations, more insecurity, which will flow over the borders of these countries. We urgently need reforms. There's a lot of work to be done.

For information 

Eva Beaujon has a Masters Degree in International Law and Politics. She is a Share International co-worker from Utrecht, Netherlands.

From the May 2008 issue of Share International

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005