MY SAY: The quest for a 'new' normal

In November last year, the UN reported that there are many more people with cellphones in the Indian population than those with access to a toilet.

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abd Razak, Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Originally published in 'The Edge Malaysia' on the 10th January 2011.

It was estimated that there were more than 670 million cellphone connections in India by August last year, with the number said to be growing by close to 20 million a month, based on official government data.
The cellphones are mostly sold in the malls and neighbourhood outlets patronised by the working class. It is a frenzy involving more that half of the present Indian population of about 1.2 billion.

By comparison, the UN data showed, only 366 million Indians had access to a private toilet or latrine in 2008, "leaving 665 million to defecate in the open". About 18% of India's urban population and 69% of its rural dwellers defecated daily in the bushes, the beaches and open fields, according to a World Health Organization and UN Children's Fund report.

It underlines the perplexing disparities and priorities of the country which experiences vibrant economic growth of about 8% a year. While it is true that tens of millions have benefited from India's emergence as an economic power, the basics are clearly in need of more attention.

Just last month, a study by the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Programme found that the lack of toilets costs India more than US$50 billion a year — mostly through premature deaths and hygiene-related diseases. It suggests that India bear a higher economic cost than other Asian countries — Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and Indonesia — from inadequate collection of human excreta. Consequently, the study noted more than three-quarters of the premature mortality-related economic losses are due to deaths and diseases in children less than five years of age. Diarrhoea among children in that age bracket accounts for more than 47% of the total health-related economic impact.

Ironically, India is known for its relatively cheap, world-class medical care for tourists, mainly from the developed world.

As we take stock of the first decade of the 21st century, such a situation, or “old” normal, is not familiar to India alone. Indeed, it is a real dilemma for the world in general and developing countries in particular. This cannot be more pressing from the view of at least three major global agendas sanctioned by the international community through the UN, which will see their completion in less than five years. These are the Millennium Development Goals, Education for All Programme and the UN Decade on Education for Sustainable Development, which ends in 2014.

Given the assessments to date, there seems little hope that any of these goals will be satisfactorily met, implying that global commitment to things "international" is still wanting, let alone equity in living standards in the international community.

These are the most pressing issues as we move forward in the much-touted globalised borderless village when in reality there are still many divides, ranging from structural to the intangible, that serve as barriers to improving participation under the so-called globalisation banner. Several age-old disparities remain deep-rooted, be it in relation to wealth, ethnicity, language and geography between the urbanites and ruralites globally.

Asia, in particular, and the non-West in general, are therefore at a crossroads. The dilemma they face is either to seek a "new" normal in redefining what development means in the context of sustainable development or accommodate the prevailing Western-centric “old” normal of what development is. As an executive director of an organization that works in the Indian slums put it: “How can we talk about development without health and education?”.

In other words, for the slogans of “borderless”, “globalisation” and “internationalisation” to have an inclusive global meaning, the status quo needs to be revisited. The major challenges ahead will be even more complex should some of targets of the global agendas mentioned above fail to be realised.

Put together, we are hard-pressed to keep up with the adage that “education is a leveler of society”. And this became apparent in the last few years when education took a back seat in many developing countries that were experiencing economic problems following the uncertainties in the world economy.

Leaders of governments and institutions took the easy way out by cutting costs, thus squeezing the poor even more. In many countries, education is a tradable commodity driven by fee hikes, making accessibility to education a lot tougher.

In short, the future is predictably gloomy if the "old" normal remains unchallenged to meet the demands of a society that is more equitable and sustainable internationally. We need to urgently seek new parameters, keeping the societal context in mind to cater for the diverse interests, missions and visions of the international community. We have to move out of the "one-size-fits-all" trap. The present ecosystem is no longer tenable as we create a just post-industrial society in the coming decades.

The international development secretary of the UN is reportedly set to deliver a withering critique of the failure of some of the world's most economically developed countries to contribute to international disaster relief funds, which are already short of US$100 million for 2011. The criticism comes amid evidence that despite the Haitian earthquakes and recent Pakistan floods, many governments are cutting back on donations to emergency relief funds.

Last year has already been dubbed “a dreadful year for humanitarian disasters”. And it looks like the quest of a “new” normal needs to be intensified and serve as a wake-up call to the rich nations. We need to fulfill the global agenda that the world committed itself to some 10 years ago. Otherwise, there will more of the same in the decades to come.

Contact for Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abd Razak: [email protected]

Published: 14 Jan 2011

Contact details:

Universiti Sains Malaysia 11800 Minden Penang

++604-6533888 (Main Campus), ++609-7651704/00/11(Health Campus), ++604-5937788 (Engineering Campus)
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