More about the century of change

Last week, I tried to summarise some of the major developments in last century, the 20 century, which was indeed a century of fast change, a golden age and a time of emancipation and betterment for many groups of people, certainly for women and the poor, and also a time of democratisation and political development, again to benefit women and the poor. Last century was the first time that we had universal suffrage in Europe and America, and little by little, as colonies gained independence, after freedom fights, people there also began to get democracy, albeit limited for many years, even decades, and many young states have had one-party ‘democracy’, certainly in Africa, and some have had military rule. Today, much has improved, but still democracy is fragile in the young states, and some countries are relapsing from some democracy to less democracy. In recent months, the military has again taken over in some countries in Central and West Africa.
When we consider and criticise the degree of democracy in the young states, we should remember that there wasn’t much democracy during the colonial time, and thus a broader democratic culture had not developed and grown roots. It is also true that the development aid that the West provided to the young independent states from the middle of last century was limited and often not well-designed; it was probably well-meaning, such as providing scholarships, but also expecting too much from it.
I doubt that the development aid was truly meant to help create real development of the young states; it may have been more for the West to make its own populations believe that they supported development in the former colonies. If it indeed was meant to have an impact, it ought to have been more massive and thus giving room for real structural change within the young states and between them and their trade and other relations with the wealthy West. It should be noted that the West had exploited and benefitted from their relations with the developing countries, and the ties that have in many ways been maintained till this day.
In last week’s article, I underlined that the 20 century was about women’s emancipation, as for voting, participation in leadership posts, work outside the home, access to day care and kindergartens, having legal right to abortion, and certainly, greater access to education. It is now a fact that girls and young women score better than boys and men at exams. In the West, government cabinets are sometimes composed of as many women as men. In the private sector, however, women are still outnumbered by men, and quotas and other measures are needed in many fields.
Most of the improvements for women in last century were positive not only for women, but also for men. However, some changes also had negative side-effects, and in several ways the situation for families and children did not always improve. In the West, the fact that in most homes both parents work outside the home has led to poorer upbringing of children and less lively local neighbourhoods. There is also a major increase in divorces, lower amongst Muslims than Christians and other faithful, but still high. Too many young people fall outside mainstream society, sometimes caused by the modern ways of family life, or the lack of it. Also, some children grow up in homes with one parent only, which may be alright, but some of the homes may have an adult living on government support because for her or his drug and substance abuse. Children from such homes have special challenges, and the government support is often not good enough.
Last century saw unprecedented improvements in the situation of the poor and the working classes, fighting for better salaries and work conditions through labour unions and political parties. In the second half of last century, the social democratic labour parties in the Europe managed to build a quite good welfare state, indeed with unemployment and medical insurances. USA is still lagging behind as are the developing countries, where private, family and informal systems are providing help to the needy.
Many would say that the improvement of working class people in Europe and beyond was the most important achievement in last century, and that the improvement of the women’s situation should be seen as part of that. We should also not underestimate the effects of the Russian Revolution in 1917, with its communist ideals, albeit the Soviet Union itself became quite dictatorial. In the West and beyond, the Marxist communist ideals were referred to by the new social democratic labour parties, but they were much more centre-oriented and pragmatic than the USSR system, not even quite socialist in thinking. The Cold War set a clear limitation to how much of the Soviet ideology that should be accepted by the West. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-91, but the West’s and NATO’s massive military build-up continued. Alas, the peaceful thinking from immediately after WWII in the 1940s was not realised. When I say that many, or most, developments in last century were positive, WWI and WWII were massively on the negative side, and in many ways, last century was a war century.
In the second half of last century, immigration to Europe increased markedly, first with foreign workers and later with newcomers intending to stay on; also, the increase of refugees in the world led to Europe receiving high numbers of refugees. Many immigrants came from outside Europe and belonged to Islam, thus changing the quite homogeneous Christian outlook of Europe. It is a debate outside my article today to consider the impact of Islam in Europe, and also the cultural change that the immigrants contributed to, and indeed the overall impact of the immigrants on Europe’s development.
In my article last week, I didn’t manage to draw attention to the progress and discoveries in medicine and other science fields. Penicillin came into use in the second half of the century, tuberculoses came under control, and people’s life expectance grew, in many cases by up to twenty-five percent. This has led to a worldwide demographic change, with dramatic growth and increases in young populations in developing countries, and aging populations in the West.
In last century, there were major changes in engineering, mechanical and technical fields, indeed in transport, first as for tor railway transport of goods and people, modern shipping for oil and container cargo, and later, expansion of road transport of goods and people, and finally, aviation. The huge increase in people travelling by air, for business and vacation, may have culminated, caused, among other things, by high cost and high fossil energy consumption, and also by the possibility of using virtual communication and IT in place of travels and physical meetings.
That leads us to consider environmental and climate change issues, which I have not focused much on in this article, but it should be the topic of several future articles. The awareness began in last century, first by experts and non-governmental organisations, as also the women’s issues were first introduced by them, not politicians. The government politicians came in later, and now the responsibility lies with them – and also by hard-hitting organisations and activists such as Greta Thunberg. It is the most important issue in the current 21 century, as is fairer and more equal sharing of the world’s resources, and improved communication and respect for all people.

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

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt