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Abstract and Keywords

Globalization is the key social, economic, political, and cultural process of our time. This entry defines globalization, summarizes its complex and contradictory correlates and consequences, and offers, from a social work point of view, a balanced assessment of this powerful multidimensional process that is sweeping contemporary world.

Keywords: poverty, economic and social development, international social welfare, social justice

Globalization is a dominant theme of our time. It is the most significant economic, political, sociological, cultural, and technological process in the world today (Friedman, 2005; Giddens, 2003; Wolf, 2004). The core of this process consists of the creation and consciousness of global interdependencies and exchanges. (Steger, 2003). The cross-border flow of information, ideas, knowledge, technology, capital, labor, artifacts, and cultural norms and values are the essence of this process. (Kaplinsky, 2005). Driven by economic and political liberalization that followed the collapse of communism in the 1980s, it is buttressed by the breakthroughs in information and communications technology that has successively brought us such transforming revolutions as the fax, the email, the internet, and the mobile phone in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. (Fukada-Parr, 2003).

Features of Contemporary Globalization

Globalization is not an entirely new process. The cross-border march of the Greek and Roman Empires, and the spread of the Chinese, Indian, and Mayan civilizations can plausibly be seen as earlier incarnations of globalization. But while the processes of cultural exchanges, transnational trade, intercontinental travel, and diffusion and adoption of new worldviews, technologies, languages, and legal systems are not of recent vintage, globalization today is more than simply a continuation of an ancient phenomenon.

Contemporary globalization has a number of special characteristics. First is its scale and scope: with the robust involvement of Brazil, Russia, India, and China and of the nations of the former Soviet block, a majority of the worlds' people is now engaged in the global economy. Second is its speed: ideas, technology, currency, and people can now move with swiftness undreamed of before, and innovation can now be disseminated at breakneck pace. Third, contemporary globalization has broken the old international division of labor: unlike the previous era, the developing countries now produce and export not just raw materials and commodities, but also manufactured goods that are imported by higher income countries. Fourth, international trade now encompasses services which, like manufacturing, can be unbundled so that some parts can be shifted elsewhere through the process of outsourcing and offshoring. Fifth, research and development (R&D), are now intrinsic to the process of globalization so that some of the world's largest corporations are now opening up their R&D departments in low income countries. And, sixth, there is now a growing internationalization of talent, that is reflected, for example, in the visible prominence of Asian engineers in Silicon Valley, but also in the hiring of European and North American CEOs by several major Asian corporations. (Bernanke, 2006; Chanda, 2007; Collier, 2007; Meredith, 2007).

Contemporary globalization has broken the boundaries between politics, culture, technology, finance, national security, and ecology. It has also broken the walls between countries, markets, and disciplines. (Friedman, 2000, 2005). It has created a global economy, given rise to powerful multinational corporations, led to the formation of new global governance structures and new forms and areas of international law, and created and made us aware of such problems as cross-border migration and displacement of people, global warming, international terrorism, money laundering, international trafficking in women and children, spread of deadly infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and SARS, and the seemingly unstoppable and thriving business of drug trade.

Globalization affects not just the economic and political arenas, but also everyday life, including entertainment, culinary tastes, preferred medical treatments, even the institutions of marriage and family, and our traditional ways and cultures. Globalization, thus, is hardly a matter of choice. It is, as Giddens (2003) remarks, how we live today. Although globalization may be “the defining trend in the world today” (Fukada-Parr, 2003, p. 168), it remains one of the most controversial and disputed topics in the social sciences.

The Liabilities of Globalization

There is little doubt that globalization has created new asymmetries of power, possessions, and privileges. It has disrupted traditional cultures and ways of interacting. It has given rise to new uncertainties and vulnerabilities. It has generated new angst and anxiety about loss of employment and declining wages (Bowles et al., 2007a; Bowles et al., 2007b).

At times, globalization has served as a conduit to push forward the neoliberal agenda that stresses fiscal discipline, reduction of social spending, downsizing of government, lowering of taxation, liberalization of finance and trade, adjustment of national currencies and competitive exchange rates, privatization of state enterprises, deregulation of the economy, and protection of private property rights. (Steger, 2003, p. 4). The legitimacy of international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade organization has come into question as many of their policies have benefited the well-off disproportionately, neglected concern for the environment, human rights, and social justice, shown little regard for employment creation, expansion or improvement of health, educational, or social services, or for progressive land reform, and their decision-making process has been lacking openness and transparency (Kaplinsky, 2005; Steger, 2003; Stiglitz, 2002; The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, 2004; United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005; United Nations Development Programme, 2005).

As Midgley (2004) notes, social work authors have generally underscored the negative consequences of globalization, which are typically said to include the shrinking of the welfare state, the diminution of the role and power of national governments vis-à-vis multinational corporations, the destruction of indigenous cultures as a result of the homogenizing effect of globalization, the weakening of trade unions and workers' rights, the enactment of regressive modes of taxation, the commodification of social relations, the ascendancy of managerialism, and the acceptance and pursuit of the cult of consumption (Dominelli, 2004; Ferguson, Lavalette, & Whitmore, 2005; Prigoff, 2000).

Benefits of Globalization

Proponents of economic globalization argue that (a) foreign trade contributes to economic growth and (b) economic growth is a necessary condition for the alleviation of poverty. Countries that have been open to foreign trade have done economically better than those that have discouraged it. On the other hand, countries that have not been able to integrate with the global economy continue to stagnate or even deteriorate (Sachs, 2005). Champions of globalization like Bhagwati (2004), Meredith (2007), and Wolf (2004) assert that globalization, instead of being a cause of poverty, is its “only feasible cure.”

Globalization has also helped raise the wages of workers in developing countries. Furthermore, it has given rise to the phenomenon of diaspora philanthropy, which constitutes an economic plus for developing countries.

Beyond its benefits in the economic realm, globalization has promoted a process of cultural enrichment, exchange, and pluralism by reducing cultural and intellectual isolation. It has served as a means to bridge the knowledge gap between people in the economically and scientifically advanced nations and those not yet there. Without globalization, there would have been no success in the war against smallpox and polio, no worldwide campaign for vaccination and immunization, no progress in the fight against malaria, no unified voice against child labor, no global call for women's equality, no international advocacy of human rights, no environmental movement, and no network of nongovernmental organizations. Globalization has spread the ideas of democracy, diversity, open societies, justice for ethnic and other minorities, and human rights and human security. In this sense, globalization has really advanced the social agenda (Bhagwati, 2004).

Toward a Balanced Assessment

Social work authors have more often than not seen only the baneful correlates of globalization (Dominelli, 2004; Ferguson, Lavalette, & Whitemore, 2005). Given the accomplishments as well as limitations of this worldwide phenomenon, it is necessary to attempt a more nuanced understanding of globalization. The following observations are offered in that spirit.

First, poverty is a global problem, and if we want to combat it, we have to create wealth. Redistribution of deprivation will not eradicate poverty. It is now common knowledge that free trade, adequate physical infrastructure, technological progress, individual entrepreneurship, a people's “adaptive efficiency,” and growth-promoting public policies are necessary for creating wealth. It is hard to find a country today that has flourished economically without participating in the global economy (Bhagwati, 2004; Sachs, 2005).

Second, economic globalization is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for reducing poverty. Globalization must be judged not simply in terms of economic growth but also in terms of its implications for social and economic justice. Any verdict on globalization must include its distributional impact and its consequences for equity and fairness. A strong safety net must be in place to assist those negatively affected by globalization.

Third, we in social work are apt to see the glass as half empty. This spurs us to action and advocacy. In the process, we sometimes overlook or underestimate human triumphs. It is no exaggeration to say that poverty in the world has declined faster in the last twenty years than in the previous two hundred. The economic prosperity brought about by globalization has contributed to rise in life expectancy and reduction of hunger, child labor, infant mortality, and fertility rates (Bhagwati, 2004; Wolf, 2004).

Fourth, globalization is an uneven process. Its results have diverged markedly across countries. Asia seems to have gained, while sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia have not fared well. For example, most Asian countries have seen a rise in their Human Development Index (HDI), which is a composite measure of human well-being that goes beyond income, and includes health and education as part of the barometer to gauge the progress of nations. However, twelve sub-Saharan countries and six countries in the former Soviet Union have suffered a reversal in their HDI (Human Development Report, 2005).

Fifth, it is now abundantly clear that social factors are as crucial to the well-being of societies as economic factors. Economic growth without social equity and social justice cannot be called development. (The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, 2006). It simply ignites social unrest and intergroup distrust. There is ample evidence that such factors as provision of child vaccination, education of the girl child, participation of women in the labor force, and the general population's opportunity to be involved in local government is all positively associated with increased standards of living.

Sixth, globalization is a complex process. Its consequences can be highly contradictory (Friedman, 2000; Chanda, 2007). It can spread AIDS as well as life-saving technologies. It can promote economic growth and accentuate economic disparities. It can contribute to environmental disasters as well as environmental improvement. It can engender both clashes of culture as well as their synthesis. It has both benign and baneful correlates and consequences. It defies simple summations and easy, facile conclusions. Both its promise and peril seem to be greatly exaggerated. While it has not benefited everyone, and its rewards have been distributed unequally, it would be rash to brand it as genocidal or a new evil and sulkily retreat, even if it were possible, into the cocoon of cultural and economic protectionism.

Finally, globalization is not an automatic or monolithic process. Its course, contours, and consequences are affected by agency, interest, and resistance. (Guillen, 2001). Thus the challenge for social workers is to advocate and work toward a process of globalization that has a strong social dimension; that is fair, inclusive, and participatory; that respects human dignity and human rights; that is democratically governed; and that offers tangible benefits to all people in all countries and not just the fortunate few. Such a shift of perspective was called “globalization from below” by a recent ILO report (The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, 2004). Such globalization is accountable to people. It works toward sustainable development. It supports economic growth, environmental protection, and social development and social justice at every level whether it is local, national, regional, or global. Such globalization is consonant with the values of social work and will deserve social workers' discriminating support.

Implications for Social Work

It is important for social workers to keep an open mind toward this complex, dynamic and multidimensional process, which has a bewildering array of contradictory as well as unintended and unanticipated outcomes. As Harold Wilensky and Charles Lebeaux in their classic work, Industrial Society and Social Welfare (1958), remind us, transformative social processes are often greeted with horror and dismay. The first phase of the industrial revolution was blamed by many philosophers and social reformers of that era for the “impoverishment in social living” as well as community disorganization and disintegration, and for worsening the plight of the poor. Yet it world appear to be intellectually irresponsible to consider industrial revolution as an unalloyed catastrophe today. Similarly, to regard globalization as an unadulterated blessing or an unmitigated disaster, to condemn it wholesale or to celebrate it uncritically, misses the point. Empirical evidence does not provide a clear, unequivocal verdict on its overall impact (Chanda, 2007). One must, therefore, settle for a highly qualified, circumspect, nuanced, and tentative judgment on its overall impact.


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