Events in 2012 so far have confirmed a new global dissymmetry. Caught between unprecedented financial insecurity and a somber economic outlook, the rich OECD countries and their middle classes fear geopolitical weakening and downward social mobility. In much of Asia, Africa and Latin America, however, optimism reigns.

Among developed countries, this unexpected shift of fortune has incited protectionism, exemplified by French calls for de-globalization. Meanwhile, among emerging economies, pride has sometimes manifested itself as conceit, tinged, after decades of Western arrogance, with schadenfreude. But, because the world’s developed, emerging, and developing economies are now so closely linked, they will either dog-paddle out of this crisis together or enter into a danger zone unseen since the 1930s.

After World War II, a new global economy emerged, in which a number of developing countries adopted export-led growth models, thereby providing industrialized countries with raw materials and household goods. This new economy was a success: More people left poverty in the 20th century than in the preceding two millenniums. And it enriched OECD countries, as imports of cheap goods and services strengthened their purchasing power.

But this model also weakened rich countries’ social structures, widening inequalities and excluding a growing proportion of their populations from the labor market. Moreover, it is responsible for the financial imbalances that besiege us today: To counter the effects of widening inequality and slowing growth, OECD countries have boosted consumption by rushing into debt — both public (leading to Europe’s public-debt crisis) and private (facilitating the American subprime crisis).

This would have been impossible had the OECD countries’ main suppliers of energy and manufactured goods not, over time, become their creditors. In a remarkable reversal of history, the world’s poor now finance the world’s rich, owing to large foreign reserves. Indeed, the hypertrophy of today’s global financial sector largely reflects efforts to recycle emerging-market countries’ rising surpluses in order to plug the rich countries’ mounting deficits.

Until recently, this dynamic was considered transitory. Emerging countries’ growth would necessarily lead to convergence of global wages and prices, thus halting the erosion of manufacturing in the OECD countries. The demographic transition in the world’s emerging countries would encourage the development of their domestic markets, a fall in their saving rates and a rebalancing of global trade.

That might be true in theory, but the length of this transition period, which is at the heart of the global financial crisis, has been badly underestimated. The “inversion of scarcities” — the new abundance of men and women actively participating in the global economy, combined with a once-abundant natural world’s increasingly visible limits — risk prolonging the transition indefinitely, for two reasons.

First, from a macroeconomic perspective, we can no longer count on declining prices for raw materials, one of the economic stabilizers in times of crisis. Given rising demand in emerging countries, the cost of natural resources is bound to be a growing constraint.

Second, from a social perspective, after a doubling of the workforce in the global labor market during the 20th century, another “industrial reserve army” has arisen in China, and among the three billion inhabitants of the world’s developing countries.

A rapid rebalancing of global growth by reducing financial imbalances between OECD economies and their emerging-market creditors is risky, because it would cause a major recession for the former — and then for the latter. Moreover, it is unlikely, because it assumes that emerging countries will run trade deficits with OECD countries, and that their domestic markets will become drivers of global growth.

If this analysis is correct, a new global rebalancing strategy will need to begin somewhere other than the wealthy OECD economies. The implementation of new growth models in the developing world — the parts of South Asia, Latin America, and Africa that have not adopted export-led strategies — can provide at least part of the missing demand that the world economy urgently needs.

The success of this scenario depends on a combination of three dynamics. First, interstate trade between emerging-market and developing countries must accelerate, thereby building the same kind of consumer-provider relationship as that between emerging and advanced countries. Second, domestic markets in the world’s poorest countries must be developed to foster more home-grown growth. And, third, financial flows to developing countries — both official development assistance and foreign direct investment — must rise, and must come not only from industrialized economies, but also from emerging and oil-exporting countries.

Recycling global surpluses through the world’s “bottom billions” presupposes a complete overhaul of standard economic models, which essentially assume that the Asian economic miracle can be replicated. After all, even if the world achieves significant economic growth between now and 2050, two billion of the world’s nine billion people will still live on less than two dollars a day, and a further billion will have little more than that.

For emerging and wealthy economies alike, the world’s poor should not be viewed as a burden. In the current global economic crisis, they are the best exit strategy we have.

Jean-Michel Severino is director of research at the Fondation pour les Études et Recherches sur le Développement International (FERDI), and manager of Investisseur et Partenaire. Olivier Ray is a development economist at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They are the coauthors of “Africa’s Moment.” © 2012 Project Syndicate

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