Recent economic and political crises have amply demonstrated how easily global equilibrium can been thrown out of kilter. Whilst the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund have endeavored to wrestle with various problems it has become increasingly apparent that many of the current mechanisms are seriously flawed. For all mankind’s apparent wealth and ingenuity there would appear to be a deficit in regard to appreciating the seriousness of the situation we all face. Societies are becoming more fractured, communities increasingly polarized and a sense of fear and foreboding is fuelling antagonism and extremism. An Age of Alienation appears to have come to pass, one which can only result in greater uncertainty, injustice and repression. Yet all is not lost, there is always the prospect that after the darkness comes light and with light comes hope, a change to begin anew.
Some Jeremiahs would have us belief that we are doomed and must prepare for end of humankind. Whilst there is good reason for anxiety, this is not the first time that nations, great and small, have had to wrestle with monumental challenges and find a way forward out of the Stygian gloom. History reminds us that we have done it before and that we can do it again. Nearly seventy years ago in the dying days of the Second World War the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference (commonly known as the Bretton Woods Conference) took place at the Mount Washington Hotel, New Hampshire, USA from 1st – 22nd July 1944. Some 730 delegates from 44 countries worked assiduously to tackle the economic dislocation and malaise that looked set to engulf much of the world following the end of the war. For all the politics and the disparities in circumstances, a remarkable unity of purpose emerged, and whilst the end result was far from perfect it was clear that very real progress had been made. It is worth remembering that the Bretton Woods Conference resulted in the establishment of the following:
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD)
Remarkable individuals including the likes of John Maynard Keynes (UK), C. D. Deshmukh (India), Victor Urquidi (Mexico) and Harry Dexter White (USA) worked with armies of economic advisors to ensure that international monetary and financial order was restored. Collective will coupled with a spirit of compromise and consensus won the day. Naturally, as in all negotiations there were winners and losers. Different ideologies and mindsets were apparent and each nation nursed its’ own agenda, but ultimately reason prevailed and for over half a century the established mechanisms functioned and did the job required of them.
The world of 1944 seems a world away and much has happened since. Nations, regions, municipalities and local communities have worked piecemeal to address more recent problems, but such is the enormity of what we now face that maybe it is time for a comparable gathering to come together to work with purpose and positivity to find a new way forward. Local initiatives are all very well, but in this age of economic power blocks and global realignment it is imperative that leaders and policy makers put their shoulders to the wheel to ensure that things move forward with some degree of uniformity.
In many respects the Bretton Woods Conference was as monochrome as the newsreels that reported it. A modern equivalent could at least ensure that leading female economists and theorists be present. One could easily make a case for such luminaries as Christine Lagarde (Managing Director – IMF), Dr Eleni Gebre Medhin (Founder of the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange), Dambisa Moyo (Economist and author) and Indira Nooyi (Chair and CEO – Pepsico) being present. World Leaders and those who formulate policy and priorities are crucial to the success of any such endeavor. The time for tinkering around the edges is over, citizens the world over want to see root and branch reform. Leaders need to be charged with formulating and taking ownership of forward strategy, with core priorities similar to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) both set in pace and monitored without fear or favor.
Food and water security, demographic change and our near insatiable demand for energy are just some of the issues that cannot be put off any longer. Solutions such as they can be found must take as their guide those masterly words of M. K. Gandhi; “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.” Humankind is capable of great things, but invariably we have to dig deep within ourselves to discover our greatness. For our leaders to be in a position to affect lasting positive change, they must strive to lead to serve.