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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

One of us, one of them

May 02, 2003

A year ago, Rajendra Pachauri was appointed to head the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, a cooperative effort at assessing the planet's environmental health regularly. The appointment of Dr Pachauri to this post followed bitter battles between the US administration, which backed him, and a few European and other nations that wanted a second term for the incumbent, Robert Watson. During his years at the helm, Dr Watson had worked to overcome some of the scepticism with which environmentalists viewed him, and actually reached the stage of being accepted by some of them as a sound choice for the leadership of the IPCC.

Global power politics being what it is, Watson was defeated -- an unfortunate turn for climate science.Pachauri's leanings, like those of his backers in the US administration, aren't particularly dear to the scientific community -- many regard the IPCC as having been hijacked by a US government acting at the behest of its corporate clients, to the great detriment of the world. The voluntary emission-reductions programs that President Bush advocates, it is well understood, merely deflect criticism. In fact, disdain for the Kyoto Protocol and its intended cooperation among nations more accurately defines a leadership that has shown little ability to think beyond the greed of energy industry CEOs who financed its politics. That 'their man' leads the IPCC is clearly a travesty.

Nonetheless, newspapers and journals parroted the line thatPachauri's appointment somehow satisfied the aspirations of developing nations. This was simply inexplicable, because the good scientist owed his position to the backing of a developed nation with the least regard for global climate treaties. When you consider the Bush administration's overall climate-management stance, there is little doubt that Pachauri was appointed not to strengthen a powerful institution, but for the similarity of his views to that of those who would diminish the panel. Rather than express dismay at this development, we were led instead to feebly applaud the facade of oneness with India and the rest of the Third World.

Not long after came the next act -- this time at the World Trade Organisation. In August, Thai economist Supachai Panitchpakdi was appointed to the leadership of the WTO. Both in the developed world and in the developing countries, many publications expressed happiness at the ascension to this high office of a Third World national. Dr Panitchpakdi, it was believed, could bring poorer nations' interests to the fore in global trade discussions. After all, thus far the WTO has remained little more than a mechanism by which richer nations have forced open new bazaars for large corporations that otherwise faced bleak prospects in already saturated home markets.

Director General Panitchpakdi made all the right noises -- touting the need for greater parity in trade between nations, and rigorous standards for companies operating across international borders. Even the few Western nations that had fought tooth and nail against his appointment -- he actually serves for a three year period as the second half of a deal brokered between countries that supported him and others that pushed Michael Moore into the first half term -- spoke of great opportunities to set the terms of global trade more equitably.

Whatever greatness was imagined then, it is now safe to say that Panitchpakdi's WTO has slowed to a crawl. The key issue around which WTO negotiations have stalled -- enormous agricultural subsidies in America, Japan and Europe that effectively lock out the largely agrarian third world -- has remained. Many keen watchers now believe that having obtained the specific early objectives, the West -- and America in particular -- has simply no interest in reciprocally opening its markets. Therefore, rather than seek to deepen the multilateral arrangement, the Bush administration is now actively engaged in bilateral deals with individual nations. The Michael Moore half of the WTO's leadership was the only one that mattered, it turns out.

During all this time -- and even earlier, of course -- we have witnessed the great irrelevance of the most 'one-of-us' among them all, namely UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. The United Nations has always made a great show of appointing to its leadership individuals from obscure nations, with the explanation that this reduces undue influence from the great powers. In their great generosity, no doubt, the few who have ordered the world to their interests make a minor concession -- that their affairs shall appear to be led by one of us and not one of them.

But in fact, it is precisely to remain irrelevant to the great powers that such non-entities are chosen in the first place. And the Iraq war provided a stunning reminder -- even as the world's powers jostled for position within the United Nations, the secretary general of that body remained entirely outside the proceedings. Yes, he did make the expected pronouncements warning of grave consequences, but being himself inconsequential was easily ignored.Annan, after all, has very little say of the composition of the Security Council or the matters it chooses to take up. He is usually dispatched to trouble-spots to wave the UN flag and make nice with dubious leaders. Only in his insignificance to global politics is he is truly one with the Third World.

Whatever the appearances of their appointments, the true test of the 'brown-like-us' leaders lies in their ability to demonstrate independence from their backers. And here, they have failed abysmally.Panitchpakdi's stewardship of the WTO has brought it to a complete stop. OfPachauri's importance to any scientifically-founded response to global climate change, the less said the better. These 'Third World' appointees can do little but bear the chagrin of their obvious unimportance, and stay the trusted path of inane get-togethers in various world capitals.

And so we march to a familiar beat. The chest-swelling over the appointment of global 'leaders' whose views are neither aligned to the public interest of their poor home countries, nor apparently serve even the greater interest of the majority of the world, is, alas, a regular feature. The unquestioned assumption that being one of us is sufficient reason to deserve acclaim reflects an ongoing vulnerability of many third world societies -- portrayed only as collective entities in global media, we often fail to note that those who appear to represent our aspirations on the world stage are sometimes chosen precisely to give this impression even as our hopes are denied.

This pretense is even stronger at the institutions that control the money; the World Bank and the IMF make far less of a charade of inclusion, probably because within their walls the rhetoric has long since collapsed upon itself. After extensive study to determine how lesser nations can find a stronger voice in them, the Bretton Woods brand of reformers concluded that there is inadequate support among the current decision-makers for the necessary changes! About 5 billion people on the planet have been protesting their high-handedness, and these institutions need a study to remind themselves of this!!

We cannot defeat the deceptionunless we allow ourselves to think beyond the identities conveniently thrust upon us. We must reject the superficial labels, and instead make independent assessments of our interest clearly separated from the mere skin colour of our citizens or the appearance of ethnic bonds. The strength of the traditional powers has endured for such a long time now that we quickly equate the presence of any Third World national among the elite as equivalent to the advancement of poor nations' interests. The unfortunate truth, however, is that for both ideological and material reasons, some of us are quite willing to serve in capacities that undermine the good society at home.

This lesson will be just as critical, whether in foresight and wisdom, or in hindsight and sorrow. Dr Vandana Shiva, the respected public interest activist, notes with some degree of wry comfort that the policies favoured by the powers-that-be are so unsustainable that they contain within themselves the opportunity for change. In time the environmental health of the planet may deteriorate greatly, and we may rue the lost opportunities of today. The trade-related crises are already quite severe; around Latin America, there is greater faith in Justicialista and Lula than in promises of trade-led prosperity. The echoes in Asia are no less significant, lurking behind the personality politics.

Nations -- and various groups within individual states -- are more than the faces of their noted personalities -- whether at the helm of global policy-making bodies or private corporations. The eminence of a few individuals must not blind us to the reality that defines the disadvantaged states and groups to which they purportedly belong. Events that appear to cast some individuals in important roles must be judged by more honest measures than the affinity of stereotype. The tokenism of the dominant is perennial -- and there is no dearth of individuals who acquiesce to it. The high officeswill remain plain opportunism, if their occupants cannot dismantle the structures that unjustly privilege the few.

Ashwin Mahesh

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Number of User Comments: 11

Sub: Pachauri, journalism style, etc.

Let me try to address the two main points of criticism. Many such 'leaders', when first appointed to their positions, make predictably nice claims. Of ...

Posted by Ashwin Mahesh

Sub: Economic & military power is the solution

While I have some empathy with Mahesh's well written article, I'm afraid it falls in the same category as Krishna Menon's infamous rants against the ...

Posted by Arun

Sub: We are not perfect...

We don't live in a perfect ideal world, where everone does their job without any bias or influence. We live in a imperfect world, where ...


Sub: Comments on ''One of us, one of them''

The article is more rhetoric than substance. Not even one action taken by Pachauri as IPCC head has been cited by the author in the ...

Posted by J.P. Painuly

Sub: Sure.

Time we give up this 'Indians-are-the-BESTEST-only-b'coz-US-supports-a-few-brown-chamchas' mindset. I like the idea.

Posted by Akshay



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