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Reductionism, Modernity and Nihilism in Western Civilization: Should Aristotle be Resurrected?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“Cogito, ergo sum” (Descartes)

But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (From Pascal’s Pensèes, 346)

There is an unfortunate tendency within our hubristic modern times to reduce and explain a higher reality by a lower one. Philosophically, it goes by the name of Reductionism. For example, the Resurrection of Christ will be explained away scientifically or positivistically by the phenomenon of springtime and its attendant rabbits, flowers, eggs and the general resurrection of nature, thus transforming a spiritual reality into a material one. The cart has been placed before the horse, when the proper approach ought to be that those natural phenomena in springtime point to, or are a symbol, a metaphor, if you will, of a transcendent spiritual reality.

Indeed, great errors as well as great advances have been made during the formative years of the birth of early modern science. Since the 17th century, right after the Renaissance and beginning with Copernicus and Galileo, many significant novelties make their way in the world by indiscriminate criticism of what had gone before. The new is praised without measure, the old is debunked, and the claimed relevance of new discoveries is extended analogously without careful argument into ever more areas. Thus it was in the seventeenth century: this is the heart of Pascal’s complaint against the narrowness of Descartes’ mathematical-geometrical definition of reality.

In one of his last lectures before his death eight years ago titled “The Mind and its Now” Stanley Jake, a leading philosopher of Science had this to say about the mistake of Descartes’ “cogito”: “There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes’ cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.”

Perhaps no greater mistake was made than in the matter of Aristotle. Early on it was clear that an Aristotelian account of physics or the heavens was no longer adequate. Naturally enough, this led to decreasing study of the Aristotelian texts, and with time to a decreasing sense of how and why Aristotle had framed central questions such as the nature of causation and teleology. We are on the way to a certain insistence in modern science that the proper study of science is the natural order, and not anything “behind” it, God, metaphysics, or finality. That is, we are on the way to a “surface” understanding of what the natural order is.

Since the credibility of his physics had been damaged, an assumption against Aristotle’s thought in general grew in scientific circles. Many thought Aristotle’s ideas about causality were implicated in the inadequacy of his physics. An argument of the present essay is that Aristotle’s thought about causation, especially final causality, articulated issues that will not go away. Though his thought has been largely ignored in recent centuries, and is not the last word, it is of permanent significance and should not have been jettisoned with more problematic aspects of his thinking during the years of the origin of modern science. Here again, the baby was thrown out with the dirty water.

Aristotle’s History of Animals provides a good entrance to his thought. Here he distinguished between simple and composite parts. Simple or homogeneous parts have a uniform nature: flesh is composed of pieces of flesh. Composite or heterogeneous parts do not have a uniform nature: a hand is not made of hands, but of a variety of parts. So it is for the entire animal. The interesting question is how an animal, once formed, is to be viewed. Aristotle’s preference was first to describe the completely formed animal (in today’s terminology, synchronically), and then the historical process by which the animal had been formed (in today’s terminology, ontogenesis or diachronically). This preference articulated his insight that by definition it was only the fully formed animal that expressed everything that the animal could be, that is, that defined the animal. Hence his emphasis on final causality, which looks to the end (telos) of whatever is to be defined.

For most biologists or zoologists today this is backwards. They commonly think of the parts as what is most basic to an animal, and are reluctant to speak at the level of the organism, let alone of an organic form which reveals purpose. To understand is to take apart, not to see the whole. To wit, Eisnstein’s famous statement: our era is characterized by perfections of means and confusion of goals. This is the perspective famously criticized by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis dreamed of “a ‘regenerate science’ of the future that would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” To this regeneration one can add a science that would also remember history and origins. Not for nothing Vico dubbed his philosophy of history a new science.

Here debate about the criteria for defining the origins of humanity has centered on consciousness as a sure index of the appearance of man. There are no graves in the animal world, only humans construct them. But graves are an indication that humans have understood that they will die, are conscious of their finiteness. The idea of transcendence has appeared: “It is not necessarily with the use of tools that human existence begins, but rather with metaphysics.” The higher animals can use tools as it has been observed lately, but only man can transcend himself. This was already Pascal’s point in his famous “man is a thinking reed” passage (Pensées, 346): “But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

To anyone who knows anything at all about Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1725), Pascal’s and the paleontologists’ observations on burial of the dead, are not new. Vico’s views have become the base from which Robert Pogue Harrison has launched a contemporary reflection on burial of the dead, and the relation of the dead to the living. Harrison is essentially in agreement with the paleontologists: humanity “is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.” Religion and the idea of a transcendent reality are grounded in the burial of the dead which points to it. Humans have about them a “history-making mortality,” the aboriginal sign of which is the grave marker.

All this is very much in agreement with a line of thought developed by John Lukacs, who has been arguing throughout a series of books that scientific materialism has it completely backwards. It is not matter that produces mind, but human consciousness that shapes everything. It is nonsense to talk about humans as anything but at the center of reality, for it is humans who are conscious and can speak of centers. And humans have no choice as conscious beings other than to be at the center. This is the deep significance of Aristotle’s “anthropomorphism”: his option to privilege human experience epistemically.

In showing the many limitations of Darwinism, Lukacs goes further than some of the paleontologists, arguing for the incoherence of the application of the idea of evolution ever further backwards in time, one result of which has been the claim that humans existed as much as a million years ago. The hidden assumption here is the materialist one that matter preceded human mind, mind only gradually appearing. Lukacs has no patience with this “dribs and drabs” theory, and rejects the very idea of a “pre-historic” man. Humans are defined by the fact that they are historic or conscious beings, beings defined by historicity, conscious beings oriented in time. They have no pre-history, only history.

From such materials Michael Schulz has brilliantly constructed a counter-cultural position. Schulz argues that the very terminology “cosmos” or “universe” makes no sense other than as expressed by a human. It is indeed true that the earth is a minor planet, and that in one sense the universe has no center. But statements such as these are not possible without the man who makes them. In this sense, as the surveyor of reality, man is its center. As Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré insisted, the only time we have is our time. The very notion of history must be human-centered.

In both Vico’s and Lukac’s provocative formulation, “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention” and it has a history and a development and a purpose. The universe’s unity appears to, and in some sense depends on, a conscious perceiver. Berkeley adds to this the notion that without a perceiver there is no existence either. Schulz in some respects goes further than Lukacs the historian. He asserts that “One does not become more objective by attempting to gain a neutral perspective from which to view finitude in abstraction from the human knower, which in any event is epistemologically impossible. If the cosmos can be grasped as cosmos only in man, and if independently from man it does not even exist (at least as cosmos), then the most objective view of the world is given within the horizon of man’s orientation to God . . . . If the ultimate meaning of the essence of the cosmos is dependent upon the reality of man, then the cosmos with man is qualitatively more than it is without him.”

Only by standing in a relation with God can man talk of such things as the unity of the world, of categories such as infinity and finiteness. Perhaps it is time to revive the ancient medieval idea of man as microcosm. That is, there are two further, related, considerations: (1) what the unity of the universe is correlative to is an embodied consciousness—and, as far as we know, man is the thing that fulfills that role; (2) this is not just phenomenological, but ontological. This I take it, was the intuition expressed in the idea of man as microcosm. Schulz develops the question of the early history of humans somewhat differently than does Lukacs. For Schulz, who accepts evolutionary theory, the question is not so much whether we may properly speak of human beings where there is no human consciousness, but the way in which history articulates all that it is to be human. He writes that “Evolution . . . testifies to the anthropocentric character of the cosmos . . . evolutionary development ends up with ever more complex structures. The more the complexity grows, the more we are able to distinguish between an interior and an exterior in a living being, and the more the form of subjectivity takes shape.”

In sum, as Vico points out in New Science, though humans initially may not have appeared with a high degree of consciousness nor much historical sense, they are “not bound up with the things of this world in an absolute way like the animals. Man is . . . a creature of transcendence; this creature is the window through which the cosmos ‘sees’ its origin.

To sum up, a number of ancient thinkers observed that there is a fit between nature and consciousness. This valuable observation did not lead to an anthropocentric view of the world in the modern sense that human consciousness is a pre-condition for knowledge; but the mixed blessing of the modern “turn to the subject” now allows us to see the centrality of human consciousness in organizing the world. It is not that there is no organization without human consciousness, that the universe is not already a universe before we know it, one that we are “fit” to understand, but that human consciousness is apparently the only vehicle by which such organization can be discovered. This makes humans central to the very idea that there is a universe, and themselves a kind of microcosm. Among the forms of organization and pattern they can discover is the “immanent teleology” of heterogeneous beings, already known to Aristotle, but largely disparaged in the years of the birth of modern science, along with serious debasement of the understanding of causation from being a category of analysis to being one of temporal relation.

Though Aristotle is not the last word on any of these issues, and his discoveries have to be expanded to give greater consideration to the place of the relations of things both to each other and to God, the contemporary rediscovery of certain categories of purpose—in particularly in biology—represents a great advance on the mechanistic world we have inherited from the age of Descartes. Purpose is not to be viewed as simply something extrinsic to individual living things, but as also something intrinsic to them, a description of their capacity for self-maintenance as wholes. What is now needed is a synthesis that overcomes the dichotomy “intrinsic/extrinsic” to show that all heterogeneous living beings have not just an intrinsic and extrinsic ordering, but an order that is at once both. This is mirrored in Vico’s concept of Providence which is both transcendent, i.e., beyond space and time, and at the same time immanent within history.

Hence, with his insistence on consciousness and history as intrinsic to man’s humanity and even to the point of it all of the cosmos (its logos), Vico is the first philosopher and humanist to detect the enormity of Descartes’s blunder at the origins of modern philosophy, and to suggest a possible remedy. Three hundred years or so later the Vichian diagnosis of that error remains valid; unfortunately, the prognosis remains to be applied and those who claim that Vico’s new science has nothing to do with history and wish to claim that his science is based either Plato’s forms or Descartes’s abstract mathematical cogito as the origins of all that is new and progressive and modern are not part of the solution but very much part of the problem.

N.B. This article appeared in Ovi magazine on 28 April 2011. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant now.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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World history From Alfa to Omega Or The human tragedy

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The Beginning

While reading the Bible the first thing that strikes the eye is a holistic image of a human being. At first, according to the Book of Genesis, God created man on the last day of the creation in his own image and likeness and let them have domination on an entire world. But although outwardly a human being has divine qualities their nature and essence is not ideal. Moreover at the end of each day of creation it is said: “God saw that it was good” but the same conclusion was not made at the end of the sixth day. Probably God was in doubt. God created man endowed with reason and free will and is immediately convinced that his created being is imperfect hence the man and the woman does not obey the will of God and sinned. And in order to put a man to the true path Adam and Eve were punished and were sent forth from the Garden of Eden. And God told the first woman “great will be your pain in childbirth, still your desire will be for your husband, but he will be your master”. These means that from the beginning God created man and woman equal and the consequence of the first sin became ruling.

In turn God said to Adam: “the Earth is cursed on your account; in pain you will get your food from it at all your life”.

Secondly, Cain killed his brother Abel.  And the Lord said to Cain: “you are cursed from the earth. No longer will the earth give you her fruit as the reward of your work, you will be a wanderer in flight over the earth”.

And later when humanity has multiplied the Lord saw that the sin of men was great on the earth, and that all the thoughts of their heart were evil and the Lord had sorrow because he had made men on the earth, and grief was in his heart”. And the Lord said to himself: “I will take away creatures, whom I have made from the face of the earth, even man and beast  and that which goes on the earth and every bird of the air for I have sorrow for having made them”.

Thirdly, God made up his mind due to and granted people one more chance again. The Lord said to Noah: “The end of flesh has come; the earth is full of their violent doings”.  The destruction came on every living thing moving on the Earth, birds and cattle and beasts and everything which went on the earth and every man”. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark were kept from death.  And when the waters were away the “Lord said in his heart: “I will not again put curse on the earth because of men for the thoughts of men’s heart are evil from their earliest days; never again will I send destruction on all living things as I have done”.

The fourth, God said that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah were evil and sinned a lot. Thus he decided to destroy these cities and told Abraham about it. When Abram said to God “Will you let destruction come on the righteous with the sinners?”  And the Lord said that if by chance there are even ten righteous men within the cities, he will have mercy on the towns for their sakes.

In the book of John it is written, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.  I won’t dare to talk about the Word, but I can briefly touch upon some of its manifestations – the speech and the especially significant part of the speech—the “word”: It can be stated that words are condensations of human mind, with the help of which meaningful speech is formed. In other words, things and phenomena – utterly everything is expressed through words. Every time when we narrate or write a word, a thing or phenomena emerges within us. That is why it is said that every word is a whole word. By the way, the possibility to create words is God’s gift to humans. “And out of the ground the Lord formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them; and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof”. Combining the words we express a complete thought, and combining separate thoughts we get, for example, a story. To write the World history many ideas formed from different words are needed that can become a thick book or a multi-volume work. But if this is the only way of writing history. The reader may himself connect, combine words, make them vivid, as much as he is familiar with words.

Reader create yourself, you are able to do more than I did.

And Here’s the Whole Story

Sinning, fratricide, genocide, theft, robbery, greed, deceit, crime, treachery, betrayal, selfishness, philandering, homosexuality, child abuse, harlotry, drug abuse, ebriosity, self-seeking, violence, authority, ambition, avarice, greediness, vanity, ostentation, adulation, servility, self exaltation, materialism, bribery, racketeering, corruption, dictatorship, tyranny, slavery, peonage, avidity, murder, state, World War, oligarchy, banditry, terrorism, the mafia

The End

After reading these words, new words are coined within us and the list of them gradually increases and everyone of it visualizes a human vice which gives birth to a vile deeds and acts. As these deeds and acts are vast, the words visualizing them are vast. But the question is not limited to the words. The words are gathered, combined and linked, and turn into ideas, thoughts, images and then outgrow into a story.

The story lines up human villainous blemishes and inhuman deeds.  At first there was a sinful person. Probably he was lazy, nefarious one who had stolen the food from his brother or neighbor at the dawn of the story. Then appeared the other, relying on his strength, seized others food. Thus loot rises which becomes the lifestyle of others. Human story is a story of deeds of human faults. On the core of the blemish lies the biggest sin – delusion to enjoy the life at any rate, to serve everything to satisfy this delusion. Not to work as much as possible, to eat delicious foods and drink, to have sex, to keep servants, to achieve power at any cost, at least over a child, over people, over a state, over the world, over the nature to be able to give orders, as Nazar the Brave  said “Now stand there, punks!”.

A state is created that should become their defender, to ensure their safety. But, instead, the state becomes a tool in the hands of the authorities for advanced and vast stealing. It is just to the point to remember the story of Alexander the Great. A pirate was brought to him for punishment. Alexander asked him: “Are you a pirate? Do you rob people?”. The latter replied: “Yes, My Lord, I rob people with my little boat to meet the needs of my family and I am called a pirate. But if an entire nation is robbed with thousands of ships and people they are called a Great Leader or a Great Ruler”.

A new era of war between states begins and is going on up to present. What is war if not a legalized robbery and a legalized murder? Wars have never ended with victory, because the victorious state had been defeated in the next war, and on the other hand, the both sides – the victorious and the defeated states – had only victims, one more, the other less. The theft was dilapidated in a short time. Thus the result of wars has always been blood and destruction, the human suffering. Has the Europeans realized that they had destroyed the creation of God when conquering America? Has the Turk realized that he has not only destroyed chapels built by others but he has stopped the building of the new ones. Of course not. And the victorious war is presented as a heroism, protection of Motherland, the nation safety, the base for a brilliant future, a pompous words are woven to glorify the victims, slogans “no one is forgotten nothing is forgotten”, unknown soldiers are praised, monuments are build, even Medal of Honors are rewarded posthumous. It is apparent, that all this is directed to the alive that are prepared for the next wars. But the reality is that the rulers has nourished their ambition and urge for power, provide their entertainment and pleasure, enjoying life in their own way. The losers had partially revoked from their amusement and pleasure, filled with revenge and got ready for the next war.

By the way as to the revenge; in ancient times blood revenge was very common when in case of a murder, the relative of the victim,  to uphold the honor of his family, was obliged to kill either the murderer or his close relative. The latter should treat likewise and thus endlessly. In the course the civilization of the society, realizing the dangerous effects of this phenomenon, the state assumes the responsibility to punish the murderer and gradually the blood revenge is being forced out from the civilized societies. But the States moved this phenomenon of revenge to international relations.

It is not arbitrary that great tragedians Aeschylus , Sophocles , Euripides , Shakespeare  and other geniuses see the tragedy of a person as well as of a society in human poor-spirited blemishes. Dante , describing the hell in his “Divine Comedy”, had probably suffered a lot finding appropriate punishment for each vice and placing human soles in a hell and had to describe the hell as giant abyss which is divided into several circles of suffering. Balzac in his “Human Tragedy” has not suffered less describing the human vice. Pavstos Buzand  uses such words as hatred, jaundice, malice, rancor, villainy, conspiracy and so on in describing the human ghastly taints and deeds. More horrifying is the description of Movses Khorenatsi  – ignorance, whoredom, stupidity, self-conceit, gold lover, insincere, vainglorious, vanity, rigmarole, indolence, arrogance, peroration, ebriosity, swank, authorities steeling with thieves, grafter, stingy and greedy, abductor and so on. Movses Khorenatsi the cause of the tragic situation of Armenia of his times considered the inhumane vice and deeds of humans. Hardly a nation is found that does not agree with Movses Khorenatsi’s “Lament”. But if Movses Khorenatsi is mourning the Armenian condition, Grigor Narekatsi  in the poem “Book of Lamentations” is mourning for the world generally, for human condition laden with sins. He is sure that if we put human vices on one of the pan of the scale and on the other – the Mount Ararat, the mountain will be lighter. As to enumerating the words describing the human blemish used by Narekatsi, means to do Sisyphean work. Since the world has currently become a big market and everything has become a matter of trade, and consumer philosophy prevails; when every single day the advertisements tell us what we do need, and the criteria of human, social and spiritual values is money, the inhumane vices and deeds of a man has become more vivid and advancing.

The story has not changed because the man himself has not changed but has accumulated and multiplied his blemishes and vices in the course of time. The man keeps on finding the causes of his inhumane blemishes outside of himself, blames the devil, but there is no devil, we are the devils, it is inside of us, it is our freedom of choice of free will given to us by God, which is generally wicked. The man keeps on justifying even the largest sin with the divine power of reason not only before the others but also before his own conscience, tries to justify his the most villainous deed before others. It is more vividly described in the Bible, when after committing the first sin the God asked Adam why he ate that apple, he answered: “This woman, whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I took it”.  So Adam first blamed the God then Eve but not himself. When the God gave the same question to Eve, she replied, “I was tricked by the deceit of the snake and I took it”.  As we see Eve was more humble, she blamed only the wisest snake. It is noteworthy that there is no devil in this case. It is not accidentally said that a good deed has thousands of parents, and the evil is an orphan. Everyone is to be blamed but the sinner himself.

When you learn the modern scientific understanding of the Universe, you see a great explosion, millions of temperatures, collision of stars, collapse, black hollow which absorbs everything, and suddenly you imagine a trivial, lost corner of the Universe, where reason was shaped, birds are singing, the river is flowing, the trees cast a shadow and in this boundless divine surroundings people instead of enjoying the life, they struggle with each other and do everything to destroy the life on our Earth.

A question rises. Where are the human generous impulses and inclinations that we see around us? Have they vanished? Of course not. They do exist and proceed with the existence. Let`s talk about the self-sacrifice; for instance, heroes of the war are ready to give their lives for the sake of their battle friend, for their Motherland sacrificing themselves and the future of their children. But such generous, eminent and stately actions get lost, dissolved in the horrors of war, whether the war is won or not. The Don Quixotes exist nowadays and probably thanks to them that the world has not been finally and totally destroyed.

And at last a prominent question; all the children are wonderful, where do the villains appear from? Let us find the answer to this question.

When I decided to give an ostentatious title to this little essay and wrote it on computer, a black square appeared, and it seemed to me that I am starting to understand the meaning of the K. Malevich “Black Square”. It is known from physics that the absolute black body absorbs all the energy. The same happens in the course of human history when human vices and repulsive actions absorb the positive actions and lofty intentions, and the spirit plunges into the darkness. This process is very similar to the astrophysical “black hole” which devours all the material in the sphere of its influence, and as much it devours, there’s nothing that can get out of it, even a small spark of light.

Human history, too, absorbs everything humane and is apparently like a “black hole” but from which, unlike the black one, blood is poured out of it

We all have to look way out of that predicament. We may burn a lamp of hope and try to stay a man, much better Human.

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Elpidophoros sees his future in GOA. Or not?

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Archbishop Demetrios’ possible retirement has been discussed more and more often, and not only in the media but also in Orthodox forums and blogs, which highlights the importance of this event and the difficulties the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America will soon face. However, the accents drastically differ from those in official statements and open letters.

The GOA issues are much more complicated as Demetrios is not the root cause of the crisis. The point is that even after at the moment of its birth the Archdiocese wasn’t independent enough, and now it’s even less so. Each of its Dioceses is subject to Constantinople, each of its bishops is controlled directly – so nothing really depends on the Archbishop in these circumstances. In spite of this, the GOA Primate’s retirement is inevitable.

In this situation many see Bursa Metropolitan Elpidophoros Lambriniadis as Demetrios’ successor, though opinions vary. His supporters say that his appointment is a chance to increase the GOA’s self-sufficiency and make it more modern and open. Opponents consider this Constantinople’s trick to impose dictatorship and dispel all hopes for independence in the guise of liberalism and an effective crisis manager. There are even those who believe Elpidophoros will become an American Patriarch…

It’s hard to say if these conjectures are based on reliable information. Either can’t we say with certainty that Elpidophoros is involved in disseminating these gossips, but they obviously play into his hands. Metropolitan of Bursa is not only an ambitious person but also a pragmatic one, and his program is not of that great significance in this context. By the way, he may become the one to bring the LGBTQ issues to the GOARCH agenda. Recently, along with some largest benefactors to the GOA, even Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia has paid notice to them in his essay for the Wheel.

However, for such an ambitious person as Elpodophoros, the American Archdiocese is unlikely a primary career interest. The Metropolitan likely sees the GOA as a platform to return to the Patriarchal elections in Turkey. Although this fact fills the Archdiocese’s members with indignation, but today the GOA is just an interim stage in a race for the Patriarch See in Istanbul, on the outskirts of Europe. It will be so until the Archdiocese’s benefactors and hierarchs become concerned not with the figure of Demetrios but with internal reforms and the revision of relations with Constantinople. Or – until the See indeed moves to the US. Up to this moment anyone can promise to the GOA laity anything in blogs and on the sidelines – this is a free country.

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Rohingya Crisis Needs World’s Support

MD Staff

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Rohingya women with kids are walking to the camp with relief food at Camp Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © Tanvir Murad Topu/World Bank

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres came to Bangladesh to see firsthand the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis.

Before they left, they urged the world not to turn a blind eye to the plight of Rohingya refugees fleeing their homes in neighboring Myanmar.

Over 700,000 Rohingya have taken shelter in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh since August 2017. Many now fear that their shanty homes – made of bamboos and plastic sheets, perched on deforested hills – could crumble under the heavy rains of the monsoon season.

But the flow of refugees has not stopped. As Kim and Guterres visited Cox’s Bazar under gray skies, more people arrived with stories of hardship and brutality.

“I have worked in some of the poorest countries in the world, but the experience here has been deeply troubling,” Kim said. “I have been deeply moved by the courage and the dignity of the Rohingya people, and appalled by their stories of what they had to endure: rape, torture, killing, burning of homes. As the UN Secretary-General said, the Rohingya are one of the most discriminated against and vulnerable communities on Earth. ”

The Government of Bangladesh has done the world a great service by keeping its borders open and supporting the refugees, Kim said. But the responsibility should not be Bangladesh’s alone.

The number of refugees in Cox’s Bazar— one of the poorest districts in Bangladesh—is now more than twice that of the local population.

Despite its own challenges, Bangladesh has been drawing from its own resources to respond to the crisis. Among other measures, the country has allocated 5,000 acres of land for temporary shelters, provided food relief, deployed mobile medical teams, and carried out large-scale immunization campaigns.  Bangladesh has built 13 access roads to the temporary and registered camps and established water points and sanitation facilities.

With the monsoon rains continuing, the government has relocated 30,000 people to safer ground while preparing to move other vulnerable people, with support from UN agencies and non-governmental organizations

As the needs continue to grow, the World Bank Group announced last week up to $480 million in grant-based support to Bangladesh for health, education, sanitation, disaster preparedness, and other services for the refugees until they can return home safely, voluntarily, and with dignity. This financing will also help build the country’s capacity to deal with the crisis. The World Bank’s ongoing programs also will support the people in Cox’s Bazar.

But the UN Secretary-General said more funds are urgently needed as a key $950 million humanitarian aid plan is just over a quarter funded.

Prior to visiting Cox’s Bazar, Kim and Guterres met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to express their gratitude to the people and government of Bangladesh.

“The government’s relief effort, along with those of domestic and international relief agencies, has saved thousands of lives,” Kim said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the government to create and maintain dignifying living conditions for the Rohingya people. We’ve come to an agreement that we will build some more permanent structures and provide more services—the kinds of basic things that everyone needs, such as health care and education.”

Kim explained that support for the Rohingya is one of several areas where the Bank Group is working closely with Bangladesh.

“With respect to the government of Bangladesh, we believe so strongly in the direction they are going – for issues quite separate from the Rohingya – that we provided over $3 billion of low interest, long maturity loans this year for Bangladesh’s development priorities,” Kim said.

He added that this is the highest level of financing the World Bank has ever provided to Bangladesh from the International Development Association—the Bank’s fund for the poorest countries. IFC, the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, also committed more than $420 million [AC1] [DLB2] of financing to private companies in Bangladesh this year.

“We consider Bangladesh an important partner in reducing global poverty, and we’re committed to helping Bangladesh achieve its aspiration of becoming an upper-middle income country,” Kim said.

The joint World Bank-UN visit to the refugee camp signals a closer working relationship with the United Nations to address fragility, conflict, violence, and forced displacement—situations that can last a decade or more, requiring more resources than humanitarian aid alone can provide.

Kim, Guterres, and Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, all described the current level of cooperation between the World Bank and UN agencies as unprecedented.

“We have been working very closely with our UN partners to bring humanitarian response and development together,” Kim said. “The refugee situation around the world is everybody’s problem. It’s not just a problem for host countries, or just a problem for the refugees—this is everybody’s problem. What I saw today was heart-breaking and appalling. On the other hand, I was deeply inspired by the courage and dignity of the people who were kind enough to speak with us.”

“The work is not done; it’s just getting started,” Kim concluded. “At the World Bank Group, we are committed to doing more to make sure that the Rohingya, and all of us, can see justice. We are all Rohingyas.”

World Bank

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