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Migration is a mirror held up to all nations: Insights from migrant writers

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Authors:Ash Narain Roy and Aishwarya Parihar*

Great Indian poet and first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Rabindranath Tagore’s words are highly instructive for our discussion on migration and its manifold manifestations. He said, “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknowns and were lost in one sea.” In fact, one could argue that the great dispersal of homo sapiens out of Africa and throughout  rest of the world marked the beginning of humanity itself.

Migration has taken place since the dawn of time. Seeking safety, shelter, food and human freedom, people have sought to escape hunger and persecution in search of a better life. History is a struggle between those who tried to overcome boundaries and fences and those who tried to restore them; those who erected walls and those who dismantled them. The native people were wary of recognizing national borders. The nomads and early settlers, ranchers and hunters had different notions of what constitute borders, authority, territory and identity. Quite often borders are political and historical, not geographical. The rivers, mountains and deserts don’t separate, they unite. On the other hand, the French and British cut Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.

As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says ingeniously, “human history is a history of movement and mingling…We are not just bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. We all share a desire to be valued, a desire to matter. Let us remember that dignity is as important as food.” Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid and author of Exit West takes the issue on a very different plane saying how human beings undergo many migrations and how we are all migrants today, even those of us who have never moved.  British novelist Hanif Kureishi says a migrant is stripped of colour, gender and character. She/he has been made into something an alien and an example of the undead  who will invade, colonise and contaminate. In a way, nobody is actually a native.

As British-Somali poet Warsan Shire puts it, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” Time has come to recognize this reality. It is equally important to focus attention on the forces that motivate the young people to risk death, slavery and sex trade in the hope of a safer life.

The coronavirus pandemic will further aggravate the migrant crisis all over the world. The International Organisation for Migration says that travel restrictions due to the pandemic have left people on the move “more vulnerable than ever.” It further says that “There are thousands of stranded migrants all over the world  because of the closing of the borders.” The world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years, warns the UN, urging governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster.

The global economy could shrink by up to 1% in 2020 due to Coronavirus, a reversal from the previous forecast of 2.5 % growth. The economy may contract further if the pandemic is not brought under control. According to various estimates, coronavirus could push about 400 million people into extreme poverty. And its impact will be most severe in developing countries. The Eurozone economy will shrink by 8 to 12 % this year. The pandemic has triggered a recession twice as deep as after the 2008 financial crisis.

 The Western world too faces a moment of new reckoning. The 2008 crisis exposed its real flaws and weaknesses. After the coronavirus pandemic, the scab has been peeled off and the wound is worse than one thought. No country is an island of prosperity which can live in perpetual advancement. The developed world needs new ideas and action and a new approach to managing the future.

What is worrying is that the Covid-19 health crisis may alter the parameters of discussion on migration and mobility. At a time of populist upsurge, political elements are exploiting the crisis for political gain using migration, globalization as scapegoats. Blame games and conspiracy theories have gained new currency.

The Runnymede Report on Race and Immigration says that the history of migration can’t be separated from that of the empire. Large number of Britons moved to colonies due to economic hardship, land dispossession, ethnic and social cleansing, labour exploitation and wealth loss. The gap was filled by African, Asian and Caribbean communities. A predominant number of migrants today have similar reasons to seek a better life in Europe and North America.

A migrant also fits the British anthropologist Mary Douglas’ definition of dirt as “matter out of place.” A migrant becomes less than human by being out of place, unwanted where he/she is working, and unwelcome at the point of origin.

Our world is fast becoming a ‘No Go World.’ Fear is redrawing our maps and infecting our politics. Remote zones of insecurity are becoming central to the new world disorder.  Rich countries are reinforcing their borders and severing contact points with the zones of insecurity. What is also emerging is what journalist Todd Miller calls ‘Empire of Borders’. Big powers are now exporting their borders around the world. They are extending their zones of security beyond their physical borders. To them, borders are the last line of defence, not the first line of defence.

The world is distressed by the double whammy of the migrant crisis and the Covid-19. The pandemic represents a new battlefield in international politics that will determine the rise and fall of nations. It is also a contest to determine what type of state and society will prove to be most resilient. Countries that have robust democratic institutions and high levels of social cohesion and that can handle the migrant crisis and climate crisis imaginatively will do well. It is a new defining moment. Not confronting the warning, countries and societies risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of moral bewilderment. Tomorrow could be too late.

Literature as a Lens of Analysis

This paper analyzes the contemporary migrant crisis in Europe and elsewhere employing literature as a tool of dissecting the different nuances of what Brazilian scholar Menara Lube Guizardi calls “the age of migrant crisis.” Literature is the quintessential reflection of society and has served as a critique of the socio-political events from time immemorial. It has pioneered the revolutions that have shaped the world into what it is today.

As Turkish writer Elif Shafak says, a writer’s job “is to ask questions about different issues. By raising honest questions, literature makes invisible visible and make the unheard more heard”. Migration is a major topic in literary works. Also, writers are good at making new maps of reality.  Salman Rushdie says in ‘Imaginary Homelands’ that “our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools.” The excluded and the prohibited are always marginal to our collective imagination. 

The migrant literature has emerged as a genre of its own.  It’s literature above anything else, the narration of the essence of humanism that lends insights into the conflicts, conspiracies and complexities of individuals.

Migrant literature has manifested itself in a plethora of forms: cautionary tales of dystopian fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, prose and children’s literature. In these variations are enmeshed the different themes related to refugees and migration such as displacement and statelessness, conflict-ridden homes, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, loss of identity.

Insights from Migrant Writers: Mehta and Lalami

Suketu Mehta, New York-based author and one of the finest thinkers and writers on migration, comes from a family which, in his own words, has moved all over Earth, from India to Kenya to England to the US and back again and is still moving. His words resonate with every human and the children of every human who attempted the audacious road of escaping misery that life had become and dreamt of passing on a better one to their children. It might as well be criminal to dream of that, for such a journey is on a path of miseries itself.

As Mehta says, if a migrant or a refugee is somehow able to make it through the barbed wires to the point of destination, his heart brims with the hope of finally having a better life. For if the hearsay is  to be believed, the destination must be a paradise. That is what they claim too, that’s what the fuss is about, protecting it from your savagery and your barbaric family, you migrant. He says,

“Look, in a few years, with luck and hard work, you, too, can rise here.”

Mehta draws our attention towards a hardcore truth –how every 30th human is living in a country they were not born in. The turn of the century has made displacement via harsh climate change, war-torn continents and gross political instability leading to ethnic persecution of peoples. As we go forward from here, it only appears that we are only getting closer to a dystopia. We are nomads of circumstances. As he puts it succinctly, whether you’re running from something or running toward something, you’re on the run.”

What greets these travelers at the borders is uncertain.  An economic migrant might  not be good enough to be granted clemency of circumstances, his case not severe enough. On the other hand, a refugee might be a fearful, brutish alien.

Refugees settle for less at their new destinations. They make peace with cleaning the bedpans at a hospital regardless of having qualifications of a doctor. That is simply out of question and there are rules in place for nations to protect their own people of this thievery. Rewarding the country providing you with a safe haven by stealing the jobs of their people is a big no.

The “foreigners” become the easy target as possessors of criminal attitudes. Suddenly, all the failures of the criminal infrastructures in place, are all on the refugee. The refugee amidst the saintly population, so to say. As Mehta says “Mug shots of dark-skinned criminals, whether Moroccan or Mexican, somehow strike more terror in the Western imagination than those of homegrown white rapists.” The leaders of some of these “superior” nations are propagating this tale, because “blame it on the outsider” is an easy out.

 Why are all these migrants from these poor countries, coming to our prosperous nations that we built, they ask loudly. It is because “we are poor because of you.” The game is rigged indeed as Mehta grieves, “This is how the game was rigged: First they colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries.”

The powerful argument that Mehta makes is that migrants and refugees are shunned because they remind us of our worst fears.

We reject the refugee in the orderly nations because he is the sum of our worst fears,…. he is a reminder that the same thing could happen to us, too.”

A haunting sentiment is corroborated by Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami when she says, “I am an immigrant. Someday you might be one, too.” It is high time we shunned the antiquated ideas about migration and refugees. What awaits in the coming decades might become a cause for role reversals, with the temperature of Earth permanently rising with each year, might be an invitation to uncountable calamities. These, in turn, will only cause displacement, conflicts and more displacement.

Sitting at our homes right now, of the fear of the unknown, we might as well take a moment to pay attention to what she’s urging:

“Those who are safe from displacement — at least for the moment — must confront the roles they want to play in this unfolding global story.”

Grasping the Matter: Nostalgia and Choicelessness

In Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie explores some grim realities of modern-day migration. In the central protagonist, Ifemelu, we see some of Adichie’s nostalgia, they both hail from Nigeria, move to the US for educational pursuits, opinionated and clever young black women in America. Adichie carefully voices the narrative of a willing migrant separate from that of a refugee. Why are the miseries of migrants downplayed? Why are their experiences disregarded on the scales of severity? In representing this, along with Ifemelu, another central character Obinze becomes an important tool.

Obinze is Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart. They both part ways in pursuit of a better life, they are well off individuals in their homelands who move to the west for “the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.” That’s the dilemma that wilful migration poses to their critics, they can just dismiss the gravity of circumstances attached to economic migration.

Migrants experience a constant state of unbelonging. Even after having lived in America for more than a decade, Ifemelu struggles to identify as an American, forever an outsider looking in. From this point onwards, however, even her home in Nigeria is far left behind and she has become an outsider there as well, returnee of the great West, a perceived Americanized black woman, an Americanah. The concept of home becomes an abstract, internal feeling of longing.

Dinaw Mengestu extends this emotional feeling of unbelonging in his portrayal of Sepha Stephanos in his novel Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Mengestu himself had to flee from Ethiopia during the communist revolution of 1974, which claimed the life of his uncle, Stephanos also came to the US after having fled from the Ethiopian red terror. Mengestu’s metaphorical usage of Washington and Addis Ababa to denote “arrival” and “departure” respectively, must resonate with migrants and refugees alike. Stephanos expresses his palpable difficulty living in America and how can it possibly be done if he could never really depart from Ethiopia, his home. There’s so much psychological struggle associated with the eternal suspension between the two feelings that needs addressing.

“What was it my father used to say? A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.”

As  Randa Jarrar, in her novel,  A Map of Home, says, growing up for Nidali “moving was a part of being Palestinian”. The home becomes portable, an idea, travelling as the migrant goes.

“Our people carry the homeland in their souls”.

For a greater chunk of migrants and refugees, war-torn homes are an unfortunate reality that they are on the run from. They get a sense of home even through painful memories. At the back of the store that Stephanos runs, he and his friends, also stuck in similar circumstances and suspended in the memories of home,  play a game called name an African dictator and the year he seized power. This is a greater resonating feeling, one that transcends borders much like the migrants.

Thanhha Lai draws on similar feelings of her own childhood through the protagonist of her novel Inside Out and Back Again, a 10 –year- old Kim Hà who had to flee Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon and ends up in Alabama. The characters Stephanos and Há are different in every aspect but their longing for their conflict-ridden homes in the memories that scar is common.

“No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”

Through literature that focuses on the narratives of migrant children, writers bring another critical site of observance– the experiences of displacement at an impressionable age. These are more prone to go unnoticed as these kids often don’t have the faculty to voice their plight, but the careful, patient observance of literature helps unfold these.

Lai’s Há experiences dislocation at an unfamiliar country and immense frustration of not being able to understand the language. A smart kid who is not able to perform well at school because of linguistic barriers has her doubting her own intelligence. Adding to these woes is the sense of alienation, of being a misfit, of looking completely different than everyone else and on top of that is the misery of being bullied for it, shatters young minds.

Dina Nayeri’s own account as an Iranian refugee in Dubai, then Italy and finally after granted asylum in the US, in her book The Ungrateful Refugee, confirms the coming of age plights of migrant children. Nayeri experiences an immense pressure to give up everything that makes her Iranian, is violently bullied and verbally ridiculed at school.

“The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange “ching-chongese” intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected – but I wasn’t Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America?”

This is why it becomes important to consider the accounts of the children while treading the subject of migration mired with complexities. Nayeri explains how growing up in Iran, the sound of the bomb explosion, the feeling of imminent death remained an everyday event, only to be faced these traumatic instances where a migrant seeks respite. As a young girl, alienated in her surroundings while always being reminded of that alienation, she observed her mother’s predicament whose life had become compromise and testimony. Even more devastating aspect of her story is how they must relive the war happening at their homes, always being demanded to resound their escape story and their identities simply cornered to that escape.

“I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like…,”

Nayeri expresses a valid disappointment that rather than given the chance and the resources to thrive, they have to spend their lives justifying their presence or be labelled an ungrateful refugee. The writers bringing their own migrant experiences, further reach out to a lot more others whose stories need to be told, just as Nayeri does for these “travellers in residence” as Maeve Brennan once called. That’s where the essence of literature is rooted after all, in telling stories that need to be told.

Thematical Linkages Bridging the Writings

All the books and writings discussed above are woven with a common thread like alienation and loneliness and a sense of homelessness that give rise to fragmented identities. The migrants belong nowhere. The sense of hollowness and dislocation that migrants feel serves to highlight the uprootedness of today’s citizens of the global village, migrant or native.

The similar sense of unbelonging portrayed by Adichie through Ifemelu is found in Mengestu’s Stephanos and Lai’s Há. Ifemelu’s movement stems out of hunger for opportunity, Stephanos’ is a painful exile, Há accompanies her family out of a conflict-ridden Vietnam. The causations behind the movement of each of the central characters are different, they come from different countries, out of different circumstances, yet a young woman’s sense of never been able to belong to America even after years of living and neither in Nigeria anymore is similar to a man’s permanent state of suspension between Addis and Washington and a 10-year-old girl’s sense of lost home, without finding solace in the newer surroundings.

 To Adichie, home exists in migrant’s memory. In Suketu Mehta’s account home is an idea. In Jarrar’s portrayal, home travels with the migrant. Stephanos longs for his lost home in Ethiopia reminiscing through memories that are painful.  Há’s innocent mind seeks a tumultuous Saigon than a peaceful Alabama. A similar longing is present in Nayeri’s nostalgia of her home in Iran despite conflicts.

 The othering of the migrant is also a common thread in all writings. Ifemelu is discriminated due to her dark skin, Há feels like the odd one out amongst other kids with her dark hair on olive skin, Nayeri feels the need to change everything about her Iranian appearance as a teenager. It is simply not that such intense questioning of their outer appearance is something that arises only out of self-awareness but because of the treatment by the hosts that comes attached to it.

  Mehta also says that the dark-skinned migrant is an easier target, assumed as the culprit and easily blamed for the terror. The migrant also suffers from self-doubt besides being marked unintelligent. Ifemelu fails to get a job even though she’s qualified, Nayeri is bullied at school.

 Conclusion

In a time of hardening borders and the fear of and contempt for the other, it is hard to imagine that the sea once served as a link between nations and societies. We need to continue telling the stories of common people, stories of continuities, not the stories of elites and their battles, the way they interacted and shared similar ways of living. These stories are a powerful way to deconstruct stereotypes and prejudices we might have about the other. Centuries ago, it was the Europeans who were crossing the sea to reach India and the Americas. Today the tide has turned.

In view of the ongoing pandemic, fast deteriorating climate crisis and the global outrage spurred by the death of George Floyd, blaming the migrants for all the ills and the demonization of the ‘other’ have become a less comfortable conversation. If nations and societies don’t deal with the migrant crisis with compassion and imagination, it will assume cataclysmic proportions whose amber will consume everyone. A combination of developments has created space and time to heal. But the lens with which the world views the issue must change. The world is “bruised and bleeding”, says Tony Morrison. But we must “refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds. These are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

Some borders become a wound that refuses to heal. There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Migrants are often the victims of ‘radical otherness’. Othering has been used through history as a justification for boundary setting, wall fencing and for oppression based on colour, gender, nationality and religion.

It is possible to transform our ‘teething borders’ into tender fences provided we heed the cri de coeur of the indigenous poet Craig Santos Perez:

Let us bridge each other

Across the wounded borderlands,

Until those once forbidden are now

Family, and those once prohibited

Are now protected.

*Aishwarya Parihar is a Global Studies Masters student, studying under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship  currently at Leipzig University and the University of Vienna for the coming year.

Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi

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Classroom crisis: Avert a ‘generational catastrophe’

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Teachers and students wear face masks and maintain physical distance at a school in Cambodia. © UNICEF/Chansereypich Seng

The world is at risk of suffering “a generational catastrophe” as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the education of students globally, the UN chief said on Thursday. 

In a video message to the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Global Education Meeting (GEM), Secretary-General António Guterres reminded delegates that the pandemic had had a “disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized children and youth”.

“The progress we have made, especially for girls and young women, is under threat”, he said. “We now need to support the learning recovery in low and middle income countries – and to factor education into every stimulus package”.

Tackling the situation

To successfully avert the crisis, Mr. Guterres upheld the importance of recognizing education as “a common global good”, with teachers, safe schools, digital technologies and those at greatest risk, in need of far greater investment. 

“Financing and political will are critical”, he stressed. 

‘Vital linkages’ of education

Deputy UN chief Amina Mohammed observed that the COVID-19 pandemic had clearly highlighted “the vital linkages between education, nutrition, gender equality, health and social protection”.

She noted education systems had managed to undergo “rapid transformation” and pointed to the work of Governments in minimizing the educational impact on students, the flexibility and creativity of teachers and how caregivers have taken on “frontline roles” to support children’s education.

“Learners persevered and adapted to new realities”, continued Ms. Mohammed, as UN agencies have worked together with external partners, including through the Global Education Coalition, to deploy support and guidance to Governments.

However, these efforts have not been enough.

Since the pandemic hit, at least one-third of the world’s students have been deprived of any form of learning; close to half a billion pupils are still affected by school closures; and the most marginalized, including at least 11 million girls, are at high risk of never returning to school, according to the deputy UN chief.

Putting words into actions

Leading up to the meeting, UNESCO undertook a series of consultations for a draft GEM Declaration, which was informed, among other things, by the UN Secretary-General’s Policy Brief and the fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of education.

Central to transforming words into action, Ms. Mohammed highlighted the priority areas of financing, inclusion, teachers, safe school reopening, connectivity and coordination. 

“Over the coming year, political leaders in national and local governments, donor agencies and financial institutions must ensure that the resolve to support education is backed up with resources”, she asserted. 

She also called for innovation, attesting that going back to “normality” was neither possible nor desirable as it would mean ignoring the “profound changes” in technology and labour markets across the world.

“And it would mean accepting the unacceptable fact that even before COVID-19, some 250 million children were out of school and more than half of primary school age children worldwide lacked basic reading skills”, she stated.

Finally, the UN official underscored that “effective multilateral collaboration” and “greater solidarity with the most vulnerable countries” were needed to coordinate education among actors. 

“Implementation of this Declaration, therefore, requires a reimagining of education; a dramatic push to train millions of teachers…scaling up of partnerships to connect every school, teacher and learner to the internet; and…equipping young people with the skills they need to thrive in a complex and rapidly changing world”, spelled out the Deputy Secretary-General.

Fourth Global Goal

Turning to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Ms. Mohammed called education the “docking station” for the SDGs, from achieving gender equality to learning about human rights and acquiring new skills for a digital green economy, to developing tools for boosting tolerance and peace efforts.

“Delivering SDG 4 is a great responsibility on us all — led by the education community”, she concluded.

Other voices

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay paid tribute to Samuel Paty, the teacher who was decapitated close to his school near Paris, last week, after showing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to his pupils, “and to all the teachers in the world who take risks to educate our children”. 

Meanwhile, Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway, a co-sponsor of the event, said that “as countries start to reopen in the era of COVID-19, education must come first”. 

And Baroness Sugg, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Development, another co-sponsor, said “we know just how critically important it is to place education at the heart of our global COVID response”. 

From Ghana, the third co-sponsor, Education Minister Matthew Opoku Prempeh flagged on behalf of President Nana Akufo-Addo that the digital divide in developing have left many children “deprived” of online teaching and learning tools. 

In her remarks, UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie emphasized that the biggest problem in this education crisis is not a lack of awareness or ideas, but instead a lack of will, saying “we know what should be done and we know the consequences if we do not act”.

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Women ‘far from having an equal voice to men’- UN Study

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Women in Pakistan learn computing skills © World Bank/Visual News Associate

The COVID-19 pandemic is “interrupting efforts” to achieve gender equality and threatening to “reverse hard-won gains” over the past decades, a senior UN official said on Tuesday.

Introducing the 2020 edition of The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics, Liu Zhenmin, chief of the UN’s economic and social affairs department (DESA), said that over the last two decades, “attitudes of discrimination are slowly changing” and women’s lives have improved with regard to education, early marriage, childbearing and maternal mortality, all while progress has stagnated in other areas.

“Women are far from having an equal voice to men”, spelled out the DESA chief. “And, in every region of the world, women are still subjected to various forms of violence and harmful practices”. 

Beijing still pending 

Overall, progress continues to fall far short of what Member States committed themselves to, at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

“Twenty-five years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, progress towards equal power and equal rights for women remains elusive”, said UN Secretary-General António Guterres
“No country has achieved gender equality”.

To effectively measure progress in that regard, reliable, timely and disaggregated, data are critically needed and closing data gaps requires regular collection and use of gender statistics. 

Pushing a boulder uphill

Mr. Liu pointed out that while the coronavirus pandemic is having “devastating social and economic impacts” across the world, women are fighting “on the front lines…in healthcare settings, in home care, in the family and in the public sphere”.

With less internet access, particularly in developing regions, women also face difficulties maintaining valuable personal connections and carrying on day-to-day activities during lockdowns. 

“Many may also have been trapped in unsafe environments…and at risk of experiencing intimate partner violence”, Mr. Liu stated.

Moreover, he pointed out that women face reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services; and need more time to care for the elderly, sick and children, including home-based education; adding that they are also at higher risk of infection than men in the workplace.

Glass ceiling intact

In terms of power and decision making, World’s Women 2020 revealed that last year, women held only 28 per cent of managerial positions globally – almost the same proportion as in 1995.

And only 18 per cent of enterprises surveyed had a female Chief Executive Officer in 2020. 

Among Fortune 500 corporate rankings, only 7.4 per cent, or 37 CEOs, were women.

In political life, while women’s representation in parliaments worldwide has more than doubled globally, it has yet to cross the 25 per cent barrier of seats and although representation among cabinet ministers has quadrupled over the last 25 years, it remains at 22 per cent, well below parity.

Call to action

Mr. Liu called on all countries to “accelerate efforts” in empowering women and girls, towards improving data gaps in covering key gender topics. 

“Timeliness and comparability of data over time and across countries, need to be improved, and data disaggregation and dissemination by age, sex, location and other key variables, need to become a priority in order to fully measure and address intersecting inequalities, respond to crises, and ensure gender equality by 2030”, he upheld. 

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Of Here and Now: Pandemic and Society in 2020

Edna dos Santos-Duisenberg

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Photo by E. Dos Santos-Duisenberg : Labirinto de David, Búzios, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

After a century, the world population faced a new pandemic that fast spread globally, affecting individuals both physically and mentally. Covid-19 started in late 2019 in Asia, spreading so fast that despite the global connectivity and highly sophisticated information technology and communication systems, the interconnected society of the 21st century was incapable to fast react in order to avoid contagion and prevent the worst. Gradually, the pandemic is making a tour around the globe contaminating citizens even in rural communities from all continents. Worldwide, there have been 32 million confirmed cases with over 1 million deaths during the first 9 months of this year[1].

From this universal pandemic we learned that the interdependent globalized world of 2020 is connected but not synchronized – or as earlier in crisis, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic well-noted ‘world on autopilot’[2]. All scientific, technological and digital knowledge accumulated over centuries remains inept to protect our civilization from an invisible virus that, ironically, can be eliminated with just soap and water. Obviously, the magnitude and the economic, social and cultural impact of this pandemic took humanity by surprise.

Society was already undergoing a deep process of transformation on all fronts. Debates were focused on the fragility of democracy, climate change and sustainability, inequality and inclusion, gender and race, social media and fake news, virtual payments and crypto currencies, artificial intelligence and blockchain. Science, knowledge and technology were advancing at a fast rate in all fieldsincluding genetics, neuroscience and biotechnology. Nevertheless, health-care was not a top priority for public investments or national budgets. Yet, with the eruption of the pandemic, priorities had to be immediately revisited.  A human-centred and inclusive approach became imperative in every corner of the planet. Incontestably, the 2020s is bringing irreversible disruptions.

Lockdown measures and social isolation deprived individuals of free movements, restricting social gatherings and citizen’s mobility. The home-office dismantled solid organizational structures of daily work conviviality. Closure of schools prevented children from accessing formal in-person education, creating a childcare crisis for working parents.  Crowded metropolis became empty urban centres, no shopping, no restaurants and no city life. Cultural festivities and spaces such as theatres, cinemas, and museums had their activities suspended leaving artists, cultural and creative professionals as well as street-vendors out of jobs. Parks and sportive centres became inactive and international tourism ceased.

Conversely, family life became the heart of social order. Parents that were extremely busy with their jobshad to juggle between work and the education of their children. People became less egocentric and started showing more empathy with the needed ones. Solidarity has been manifested in donations and collective assistance by civil society. Companies engaged with social responsibility.  Artists, cultural and creative workers were defied to work even harder at home to find new niches in the virtual domain. The confined society had to rediscover its ethical values, principles and priorities.

Free-time and leisure at present

Paradoxically, this shift in human behaviour brought us back to a theory of economics that emerged a century ago (Ruskin, 1900) “There is no wealth but life”. In this new-old context, free-time, leisure, well-being and culture are closely associated. Usually, we use our free-time to carry out activities that are not directly related to work, duties or domestic occupations. May be free-time is an illusion because only in exceptional occasions our time is completely free. Leisure, however, is a subjective concept which varies depending on the society which we belong. It is connected with our participation in cultural life, reflecting the values and characteristics of a nation. Thus, it can be considered a human right according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and in particular the International Convention on the Economic, Social and Cultural rights (1967).

Despite some divergent definitions of leisure there is convergence around three distinctions: (i) leisure as time; (ii) leisure as activity; and (iii) leisure as a state of mind. Firstly, it is defined as the constructive use of available time. Leisure as a variety of activities includes the practice of sports or actions related to intellectual and human development like reading, painting, gardening etc. and those can be leisure for ones and work for others. Understanding leisure as a state of mind is complex since it depends on individual perceptions about concepts such as freedom, motivation, competency etc. Certain skills can be considered leisure depending on the degree of satisfaction, emotion or happiness it causes. Yet, the most important is the possibility of free will.

Time available for leisure also varies according to cultural, social and even climate considerations. The notion of time can be different in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Europe. Usually people who live in areas of hot climate enjoy outdoor activities and sports while Nordic people whose habitat is in cold weather prefer indoors socialization and hobbies like playing chess, classic music etc. Social leisure embraces communitarian happenings such as going to the beach, practicing sports in a club etc. Behavioural studies indicate the benefits of social leisure for the well-being of individuals, self-esteem and cultural identity[3].

Moments of leisure are essential in all phases of our life. During childhood and adolescence most of our time is devoted to study and sports while at adulthood our time is mostly consumed with work and family. Indeed, it is at senior age that retired people generally have extra free-time to enjoy cultural events, leisure and tourism.  Globally people are living longer and a newage structure is taking shape: the young senior (65-74 years), the middle senior (75-84 years) and the older senior as from 85 years old. According to the United Nations,[4] in 2018 for the first time in history, persons aged 65 years or over outnumbered children under age five. This partially explains the vast number of people in the group of risk requiring quarantine protection throughout the pandemic period.

Well-being and spirituality in pandemic times

During the pandemic, reflections about well-being and spirituality gained space in our minds. It is undeniable that the constraints brought about by lock-down measures and social distancing, offered us more free-time but very limited leisure options. We gained additional time to be closer to loved ones and to do things we like most at home. Enjoying family life, including eating and even cooking together became a shared pleasure and a new leisure style. Individuals had to optimize the quality of their temporarily sedentary lives.  

Global pandemics affect our collective mental health. Given the prevailing health and economic insecurity, the focus of our attention has been on well-being, strengthening friendships, expanding social network, practicing solidarity, improving self-esteem as well as reflecting on spirituality and religion. Suddenly the exuberant society of 2020 is afraid of the unknown virus and its long-term harmful consequences on day-to-day life. Well-being and happiness became the essence of achievable goals.

People are emotionally fragile in this moment of anxiety. Individuals are suffering losses that will persist long after the pandemic will be over.  Some feel stressed or depressed while others react by searching for relief in exercising, relaxation, meditation, yoga or mindfulness training. Individuals are finding new ways to overcome solitude and boost mental resilience. Current philosophical thinking (Harari, 2018) is reminding us that homo sapiens have bodies but technology is distancing us from our bodies[5].

Inspirational talks in likeminded groups have been helpful for reconnecting people dealing with an uncertain future. Social engagement and advocacy for health causes are used for promoting social change. Thus, besides upgrading healthcare systems and putting in place special measures for accelerating economic and cultural recovery, targeted governmental support will be needed to improve mental well-being and raise the overall level of satisfaction and happiness of citizens in the post-crisis.

Culture and e-learning nowadays

In a short period of time, many went from an exciting social and cultural lifestyle to a simple life. People had to assume the role of protagonists of their actions. Due to open-air limitations, free-time activities had to be less physically-intensive (no bike, tennis, jogging etc.), and more creative-oriented such as designing, playing music, writing. Much time has also been spent watching TV series, surfing the internet, viewing live music concerts, video-gaming, attending video-conferences as well as socializing in virtual chats. Equally, there are growing concerns about the ethics of consumer technology and internet addiction “time well spent” (Tristan, 2015)[6].

 A recent study[7] carried out in the UK to track digital cultural consumption during the pandemic, indicates that the median time spent daily watching TV are 4 hours, while listening to music, watching films and playing video games each day are 3 hours respectively. Understanding human behaviour, in particular youth habits can help to indicate new cultural trends and consolidate social cohesion in post-pandemic times. Moreover, policy-makers could consider engaging cultural institutions and employing artists and creatives to help facilitate a collective healing process and kick-start recovery.

It is widely recognized that the arts, culture and creative sectors were hit hard by the pandemic. Whist digital cultural and creative products for home consumption were in high demand, others tangible creative goods like arts, crafts, fashion and design products sharply contracted. Many artists and creatives had no option than to experiment on work in digital spaces, since they had to go global from home.

Despite the fact that 4.5 billion people (60% the global population) use internet[8], the availability of affordable broadband access is a pre-condition to use and benefit from the opportunities provided by digital tools. This applies to both producers and consumers of cultural and creative digital content. Currently, videos account for 80-90% of global digital data circulation, but at the same time Latin America, the Middle East and Africa together represent only around 10% of world data traffic[9]. This evidence points to digital asymmetries that are being aggravated. Creativity only is not enough to transform ideas into marketable creative goods or services if digital tools and infrastructure will not be available.

The pandemic also had a strong impact on education and learning.  Re-thinking education was already a topic on the agenda of many countries in order to respond to the realities of the jobs market in the 2020s.  Besides the need to adapt methodology and pedagogical practices, many believe it is necessary to bring an interdisciplinary and applied approach to curricula with focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)[10], preferably also integrating arts (STEAM). In any case, the education system has been forced to quickly adjust to remote learning. Globally over 1.2 billion children are out of the classroom in 186 countries[11]. In Latin America schools are closed and around 154 million children between the ages of 5 and 18 are at home instead of in class[12]. Furthermore, access to school-related inputs is distributed in an unbalanced manner; wealthier students have access to internet and home-schooling while the poorer have not. Young people are losing months of learning and this will have long-lasting effects. The loss for human capital is enormous.

On the positive side, continuous e-learning became a trend and a necessity.  Innovation and digital adaption gave rise to a wide-range of on-line courses. Millions of learners are upgrading their knowledge and skills in different domains through distance learning, whether through language and music apps, video conferences or software learning.  Some are free others have to be paid for, but what is absolutely transformative is that access to knowledge became more democratic.  Independently of age or field of interest, learners from different parts of the world can have access to prestigious universities or practical training.  E-learning, where teaching is undertaken remotely and on digital platforms already existed, but demand has sharply increased during pandemic and this might be a point of no return.

Over these critical 9 months, there are growing signs that the 2020s will face a new set of challenges and life will not be back as usual. The future will be very different when compared to the recent past.  Hope and fear are likely to co-exist for a certain time. There are new values, new lifestyles, new social behaviour, new consumption standards, and new ways of working and studying.  The pandemic has imposed a deep ethical and moral re-assessment on society. This turning point is leading to a deep socio-economic renovation and hopefully to a more inclusive and sustainable society.


[1]https://covid19.who.int/

[2]https://www.diplomatic-press.net/ueber-uns/geschichte.html

[3]E. Dos Santos-Duisenberg (2013) – Tempo livre, lazer e economia criativa, Revista Inteligência Empresarial (37), Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Brazilhttp://www.epapers.com.br/produtos.asp?codigo_produto=2455

[4]https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-2019-highlights.html

[5]https://www.ynharari.com/book/21-lessons-book/

[6]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_for_Humane_Technology

[7]https://pec.ac.uk/policy-briefings/digital-culture-consumer-panel

[8]https://internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

[9]https://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=2466

[10]https://www.livescience.com/43296-what-is-stem-education.html

[11]https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-education-global-covid19-online-digital-learning/

[12]https://blogs.iadb.org/ideas-matter/en/pandemic-and-inequality-how-much-human-capital-is-lost-when-schools-close/

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