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The United Nations University is an important marketplace of ideas. The U.N. is the normative center of international public policy. On Jan. 19-21, UNU brought together some of the best international scholarship with specialists from within the U.N. to focus on problems in the new century and possible solutions to them. The results of the debate were both surprising and challenging.

Global trends over the last two decades provide a mixed picture. Most social indicators continued to improve worldwide, the significant exceptions being sub-Saharan Africa and the transition economies of the former Soviet bloc. In addition, the “East Asian Miracle” spread to Southeast Asia, while China engineered a massive improvement in terms of growth and poverty reduction.

Yet, the last two decades also featured a slower, more unstable and increasingly unequal growth than over the prior decades. Income inequality rose in two-thirds of the developed, developing and transitional countries, as did the difference in living standards between the North and the South (with parts of Asia being the main exception).

In the security sector, there was a sharp rise in the number of local wars and complex humanitarian emergencies, a trend possibly related to the recent rise in “horizontal inequality” (that is, inequality among ethnic, religious and regional groups) in many countries.

Slow growth, rising inequality and mounting ethnic conflicts curtailed the pace of decline of the world poverty rate, which fell from 28 to 24 percent between 1987 and 2000. The “peace, market and technological dividends” expected from the end of the Cold War, transition to the market economy and spread of the information revolution were not enough to offset the deceleration in the fall of poverty rates. In fact, with population growth, the slow decline in poverty rates meant that the number of the poor rose from 1.1 billion to almost 1.3 billion over 1985-2000.

The trends over the next 30-50 years do not suggest the emergence of a global Malthusian trap. With the decline of fertility in China and sub-Saharan Africa and its collapse in the OECD countries, the world population is now expected to stabilize between 2050 and 2075 at around 10 billion (rather than at the projected 12 billion).

Existing food resources would be enough — if equitably distributed — to feed the world population, while the projected increases in yields should be able to accommodate its increase. Alternative clean energy sources, such as solar and fuel-cell, are being developed — and some of them should become available within the next five to 10 years. This process — which will ease pressures on energy prices and pollution — can be accelerated if public subsidies that currently favor fossil fuels are refocused on clean energy sources.

By contrast, problems are likely to remain in the fields of clean water (already now 550 million people have inadequate access to it) and biodiversity. Half a million species are already extinct and another 5 million are at risk. Yet, there is mounting awareness of the economic value of biodiversity and of the need to preserve it.

However, these broadly favorable changes in the average values of most main variables will be accompanied by further imbalances in their distribution by geographical areas and social groups. The population of Europe and the former Soviet bloc will decline sharply, that of the U.S. stabilize and that of China and sub-Saharan Africa increase more slowly (in that latter case because of AIDS). By contrast, that of North Africa is expected to quadruple over the next 50 years.

Large transfers of labor will therefore be unavoidable. A recent U.N. study concluded that Japan, for example, will need a net intake of 600,000 people per year over the next several years to offset the graying of its population.

This suggests the need for policies aimed at regulating the volume of these flows (in both countries of origin and destination) and at integrating rapidly the migrants in those of arrival. Policy failures in this area can be costly. The rise of far-right parties in Europe, for instance, can be explained at least in part as a backlash against large-scale immigration unaccompanied by measures to regulate it and facilitate its integration.

Future increases in food production will take place mainly in the temperate zones of North America, Europe and Oceania. Food deficits in several developing and transitional countries are likely to worsen. This will entail growing food transfers via commercial and aid channels.

Technological advances are occurring everywhere. However, progress in the North far outstrips whatever gain is recorded in the South. For example, the total number of Internet connections in sub-Saharan Africa is lower that that of Manhattan. If technology is not to become a new source of rich-poor divide, and a cause of marginalization and uncontrolled migration, large technology transfers are likely to be required, via the market and public institutions.

And as the street protests at the meetings of the WTO in Seattle, the World Economic Forum in Davos and UNCTAD in Bangkok showed, there is a need to better manage the North-South transfer of financial resources. The volatility of portfolio flows must be reduced sharply, while foreign direct investments need to reach more developing and transitional nations. At the moment, a dozen countries receive the bulk of these resources.

Achieving a balanced long-term development will thus require managing on a global scale ever-increasing transfers of food, technology, populations and so on, while avoiding protectionist temptations, the marginalization of entire regions, xenophobic reactions and ethnic conflicts. Can all this be accomplished under the reigning ideology of “economic laissez faire” and the current global institutional-regulatory vacuum?

Over the next half century, a much stronger and distribution-conscious management of the globalization process appears therefore desirable and unavoidable. A major strengthening of global institutions (U.N., IMF and World Bank), alongside the establishment of mechanisms of consultation to include the civil society and the private sector in overall decision-making is also required.

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