The world has seen enormous progress in the last two generations. The progress did not begin in the years and decades after World War II, and it was also not completed overnight. Still, there is much work to be done, and in some fields the “progress” has had negative side effects, too. But it was unprecedented and indeed impressive. Yes, as impressive as China’s leap forward today. Why could the steady growth take place and in what fields was it most significant?
The democratic process in the West, which was often built on consensus, with special accommodation to include opposing views, was important, without which it would have been difficult to experience steady progress over so many years. The time was ready for change; there were good political and inclusive processes, with good leadership; and there was pragmatic implementation of change and development. Other countries can learn from the West’s successful post-war experience, even China and other countries in our region, which experience even faster development today.
The 1950s was a time when women in the West began to join the labour force in large numbers. We should take note of today, on March 8 when we mark the International Women’s Day. Congratulations on the day! The day started as a ‘working women’s day’. More women than ever before joined the working life outside the home and the primary sectors, where they had always played a major role. Women could join the labour force because there was fast economic growth and a need for workers, functionaries and professionals in the factories, government offices, schools, hospitals and so on.
The women’s economic contributions have become even more important over the decades. Women have become more and more economically independent. Many would say that is a requirement for true emancipation, and it is, probably, true. If that is so, then we can apply the same logics in many other fields and to other groups. In a broad economic sense, centre-periphery relations between groups and countries can only be solved and reach parity if there is economic independence, or maybe with interdependence.
This was, indeed, one important lesson that we learnt from the Women’s Movement in my youthful years. The movement was particularly strong in the mid-sixties up to the mid or late seventies. That time, we studied new and alternative social structures at all levels. Basic institutions such as marriage were put under the microscope. Power structures were analysed in politics, at the workplace and indeed between men and women. We experimented with new models for living and working. For example, I worked at a research institute where the director was elected by all staff members for a year at a time. It was not good to show “boss mentality” and be overly career ambitious. Group solidarity was important and we should help each other and show solidarity with oppressed and underprivileged groups at home and abroad. Some groups would argue for private companies inviting their workers to become shareholders and get influence on the running of companies. Some groups thought cooperatives was the best model for economic activity, rather than the private companies, or state-owned companies, according to the socialist model. I believe we have important lessons to learn from the unfinished business from the 1970s.
We were not always true to our ideals, though, or maybe we came of age and had to take proper jobs and raise families, hence, we had to let go of our “alternative thinking”. Today, we are again at a crossroads, with the world in a deep economic and financial crisis. I believe we should look back to the early post-war experience and especially the 1970s. Obviously, many issues would have to be re-evaluated, inter alia, since the Soviet Union is no more, and the socialist development model is not en vogue. But it will become fashionable again! Yes, I know many don’t like me saying so, but in certain fields socialist Cuba is, probably, doing better than the neighbouring capitalist superpower America, notably in provision of health services for the poor, and on top of it, at a much lower cost.
Let me mention a few other important areas of change in the West, notably education and migration. First, education, or rather secondary and higher education, where we saw unprecedented expansion in the 1960s and ‘70s, and women, too, joined albeit a bit more slowly than men. Women fill posts in the civil service, often outnumbering men. In the private sector, women leaders are still fewer than men. Well, in some countries, such as my home country, Norway, it is mandatory that there must be at least 40 percent women on the board of publicly registered companies. And Norwegians have adopted the idea wholeheartedly and today there are over 46 percent women on the boards. Perhaps, too, the companies will do better when women have a greater say! They maybe more sober and take fewer risks, they maybe more systematic and orderly, and they may also not “invest for fun”. Yes, perhaps, with the passage of time, women may “blow up” less money on the military industry. Or, so I hope, being a pacifist myself.
Education at all levels is always a tool for change and greater equality between groups. Well, not yet in Pakistan, where many highly educated women stay at home. That is wrong and they should not just “sit pretty”, they should pay back to society. It is true, though, that some men discourage women from working, and often women are kept out of the informal networks, which remain “boys’ networks”. To some extent, that is also the case in the West, but there I think “women’s networks” are also developing. That, too, would be wrong.
The West has changed dramatically because of migration in the last two generations, first it was mostly rural-urban migration within the countries, and then it became international migration. In Norway, for example, where the number of foreign-born citizens could be counted in thousands in the 1950s, there is now half a million immigrants in a population of about five million, including almost 40,000 from Pakistan. The country has become culturally and religiously heterogeneous, and more creative and innovative, as all countries need impulses from outside. The West must begin to admit more openly that immigration is generally positive and enriching the West. Yet, there are also problems related to it. But the problems should be seen more as problems for the immigrants rather than the recipient societies. It remains a fact that the West does not yet have an equal and sustainable relationship with the developing countries, including the emerging economies and superpowers, and other countries, such as Russia.
In spite of some reservations, the post-war development history of Europe and North America is impressive, but it is remains unfinished. In several fields, we have gone astray and should look back to find simple and realistic solutions for everyone. Today’s economic and financial crisis shows that there is a need for improvements in many fields. More regulations and control systems are needed, trademarks of the 1950s till the 1980s. We have not yet found equilibrium between public regulations and economic freedom. We have also not found solutions to the current economic system’s need for constant growth. In the West and in the modern echelons of the developing countries, life has become too stressful and quite unbearable even for the middle and upper classes, in spite of all the material resources people have, yes, and over-consume at the expense of others.
The technological advancements have led to improvement in many fields, including between men and women and the social sector at large. Yet, we have not become better at “knowing how to live”. As a matter of fact, we have, probably, become less good at knowing how to live the good life. That is the challenge for the future. It is the purpose of all development. The West, and the world as a whole, can learn a lot from the East and the South in the 21st century. Trees will still not grow into heaven, but we must always have that as a goal.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.