Global and local goals

Richard Synge

There will be much debate in the months ahead over whether the agreement reached at the United Nations’ climate negotiations in Cancun is really a “significant step forward” – as claimed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – or a poor compromise. Activists say that the deal so far reached contains too many loopholes that allow countries to evade their responsibility to prevent disastrous global warming. Yet, with many developed countries facing their own economic and political problems, it could be considered remarkable that the richer countries eventually did subscribe to the kind of commitments that had caused some of them such difficulties in Copenhagen a year earlier.

At the very least, the progress made in Cancun saved the negotiation process itself from breakdown, reviving hopes of a wider legally-binding treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. This outcome also reinforced the need to keep global debate alive on the most difficult environmental, social and economic challenges the world faces in the years ahead. The message has at the same time been underlined that most of the practical solutions to global problems must still be found at the local, national and regional levels.

Keeping a simultaneous focus on the global and the local underlies the three major themes we tackle in this issue: water security, governance and migration. The impact of climate change on water security can only be understood from a global perspective. Glaciers and ice-caps are retreating even as new water demands arise with the growth of cities and industries in the most rapidly developing countries. However, in each part of the world, sustainable solutions for long-term human survival will only be achieved by negotiation, however difficult, between the stakeholders most directly affected by these changes in each locality. More rational use of the available water will almost always be preferable to overambitious schemes to transfer water between river basins, which carry enormous risks for long-term sustainability.

Similarly on issues of governance, we can all aspire to global ideals of democratic progress – looking to governments to deliver public benefits equitably and to civil society to uphold greater transparency and accountability – but we also have to appreciate that such ideals can never be simply willed into being, or imposed and prescribed by outsiders. Good governance can only emerge from the behaviour and interactions of the existing institutions at the grassroots of each and every society. This implies a gradual process, albeit with political overtones, which outside experts need to assist in positive ways, rather than seeking to replace, or instantly modernise, informal or traditional systems.

An even sharper double focus on global and local dimensions is necessary in the case of migration – a global phenomenon par excellence -which the international community still needs to better understand if it is ever to forge sensible policies for more rational management.

Despite the knee-jerk reaction of political populists against migrants and their influence on host communities, the impact of immigrants in society is almost always more positive than negative. Migrants can prevent host societies from becoming static and they can enrich their economic, social and cultural life. They can also bring enormous benefits to the countries they have left behind by sending home remittances, promoting new investment and helping to provide basic services.

The human urge to seek and carve out a better life away from home is largely unstoppable, and excessively harsh barriers against migration are often a stimulus for the growth of an underworld of traffickers and smugglers. As Professor Robin Cohen of the International Migration Institute in Oxford points out, all states have to recognise the limits of their own authority in migration matters.

About the author:

Richard Synge, Editor of Global, is a freelance journalist, editor and writer, specialising in the politics and economics of Africa


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