Let us still be optimistic

In my article last week, I was discussing some of the many challenges in a more uncertain world. For some decades there has been growing inequality between and within countries, indeed between the Global North and the Global South. In many countries, there is a gap between those who are well educated and those who have less formal education and do practical jobs. The USA, Germany and Japan are known for being less snobbish about what kind of work people do as long as they know their job and earn well. In the West, refugees and other immigrants, together with jobless and lowly educated indigenous people, often fall outside mainstream society.
For the one quarter or so at the bottom of the ladder in the West and many other countries, it will be difficult or impossible to climb the ladder and they will remain outside much of what mainstream society offers. People who are born with disabilities or develop such during life so they end up on government allowances will also stay at the bottom of the ladder. There should be ways of including them better in society, with part-time jobs and other activities. If people at the bottom of the ladder still have some optimism, as they too must have, it would mostly be an unrealistic dream.
Global warming and environmental degradation will affect many people negatively. In Pakistan, we have experienced devastating floods in recent years. In the future, shortages of clean water and water for agriculture are likely to become more frequent and serious. Some experts say these problems will be greater than the other environmental issues we give focus to. However, since most of these problems are man-made, they can also be solved by men and women, and with fresh funding, indeed from the West, who in many ways created the problems when they industrialized with little attention to controlling pollution and the use of non-renewable resources. The COP27 climate change summit in Egypt last year gave attention to the issue and the rich countries agreed to provide assistance to countries affected, such as Pakistan, but how soon and how much it will be, remains to be seen. Still, let us be moderately optimistic – and more optimistic than we should be for ordinary development aid, which is not growing and does not have the results it ought to have. The private sector, indeed the multinational companies, should plan to give much more development aid than they are doing. There should be some public, democratic participation in the operations of the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation and other such great organizations.
All serious local, national and global issues that we need to give attention to need people’s participation. In other words, we need stronger UN-type organizations under democratic leadership. At all levels and in all countries, it is important that democracies and people’s influence are improved. Even in countries that are not yet democracies, and in young and emerging democracies, such as Pakistan, there are many ways that democracy can be improved. It is not only an issue about general elections. I believe we focus too one-sidedly on that, but we should also focus on labour unions, employers’ associations, interest groups, and so on.
In the old democracies in the West, well, only some one hundred years old, there is a need for renewing the political parties and other democratic organizations to get more young people involved, and older people, too. Party membership is declining in most political parties, and that is worrying. In our time, though, we must think of new ways of using modern technologies as part of democratic exchange and decision-making. Young people would be interested in that, but ‘old-fashioned’ face-to-face meetings and debates must still be maintained. In my home country Norway, several established politicians have recently expressed admiration for how young people debate on social media. Let us be optimistic about this and not only criticise the negative aspects of social media.
We can never discuss the future of any country, without giving attention to the social sectors, health and education. In the West, several countries have begun debates about how to maintain good health insurance and care for all when people live longer and when everyone is entitled to the same high-level and expensive services. In Norway, a commission report recently showed that it is not possible to keep up the current high staffing of health institutions in the future, using 2050 as a forecast year. That means that there must be a major restructuring of the health sector, but nobody seems yet to know how the new system should be. In developing countries, such as Pakistan, there are good health services for the few, and those who can afford to pay, but not for everyone. It will be important not to copy the West, but to develop new systems to cater better for the middle and lower classes. I believe new technologies can be a cause for optimism, and maybe we will have ‘Internet Doctors’ in the future, handling more of the time-consuming physical consultations, and more prominence to nurses and others with practical experience.
In education, too, there is a cost crisis since the unit cost has become very high, indeed so in the West. In developing countries, such as Pakistan, new ways of providing universal primary and secondary education must be developed, and new and leaner curricula developed. In our time, much learning can be done through the Internet, distance education and e-learning. Still, students should meet, not sit alone at home, but instead of having an ‘old-fashioned’ teacher, a good adult person, for example, someone who has just completed school, can act as coordinator of groups. The ordinary school hours can be cut shorter.
At school, the focus should be more on confidence building and encouraging the students in their work and life. Students must learn how to live with themselves and others, how to look after their health, and indeed their psychological health during life, so they can cope better with the challenges we all meet on the way. Children should memorise less content and rather learn how to find and evaluate information. Today, much of the content gets outdated before the children finish school. We could organize a cheaper school than today, even better. This gives hope for the future. But when we plan, let not only education experts lead the process, but let laymen and laywomen, and older students and newly graduated ones, have a major say and new ideas.
Last week, I ended my article by drawing attention to the sad rearmament that goes on in the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reason for that, although NATO had already begun increasing military budgets earlier, and now it is escalating. The sad war in the middle of Europe is also the cause of much of the inflation and price increase we see in the West and around the world. In the future, school children, youth and those who are older and make the decisions must learn how we can live in peace, all over the world, with reduced economic and other differences. Currently, NATO encourages high military expenses; in the future, it should find ways of lowering expenses, and help find new ways of avoiding wars and conflicts and cooperating in a safer and more secure world. In spite of today’s situation, I am optimistic and believe that young people will do better than those of us who are now getting old have done. If less is spent on the military, more can be spent on education, health, and so on, and our mindset and thinking can be on such issues.

Atle Hetland

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

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