Now, this time, another world is possible

published 22 December 2009 updated 22 December 2009

“We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning.” U.S. President Barack Obama, Cairo, 4 June 2009

To transition from an era of change to a change of era it is essential for society to react, ceasing to be passive spectators and mere witnesses to the passage of time, and commencing to participate actively. Only then will governments be authentically democratic, acting upon the will of the majority of citizens, while hearing and respecting their opinions. I can never cease to underscore the significance of the fact that, at the end of that terrible Second World War, the United Nations … chose to commence its Charter’s preamble with these words: “We, the peoples… are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” It was clear that it was the “peoples” who should build peace through their authentic representatives, doing so by virtue of this supreme commitment toward the future generations. However, it was not “the peoples,” but rather the States, many of them authoritarian, which interpreted the UN Charter at their own discretion. Cooperation soon became exploitation, subsidies were converted into loans, and universal values were replaced by the rules of the marketplace. Preparing for war to ensure peace prevailed over efforts to build a lasting peace. The UN, , progressively abandoned by the great powers, became a humanitarian agency, rather than a supranational legal and ethical framework, witnessing how its dream of worldwide democracy dissolved into plutocratic groupings (G7, G8, G20…) that have replaced “We, the peoples…” with “We, the powerful…”. The situation has deteriorated progressively and, at the end of the “cold war,” supported by large weapons manufacturers, a war economy gradually developed until in the year 2000 investments in military equipment reached 3,000 million dollars daily whiledeaths from hunger and now avoidable diseases were estimated at 60,000-70,000 persons each day. There was no political will among the major powers to foster endogenous development or guarantee the equal dignity of all human beings. And the present state of affairs is our collective shame, which demands an urgent and radical change. This change is now possible because, in the last few years, circumstances have rapidly “matured” to enable former “subjects” to become citizens of the world and to acquire a “global conscience.” Thus, they have the possibility of making comparisons, the fundamental basis of ethics. In addition, there has been an increase in the number of women in public office and in decision-making roles and, finally, we have the possibility of distance participation through modern communications technology (Internet, SMS…). Given the “human tension” generated by the present crises – economic, environmental, nutritional, energy, democratic, ethical… - there is an extraordinary opportunity to convert into action the shock and outrage felt by those who futilely demand reasonable investments for the eradication of hunger or AIDS, and who observe that the same institutions that have opened the floodgates to pour immense amounts of money into bailouts, are also those that have likewise, with greed and irresponsibility, prompted this crisis situation… It should be recognized that the roots of this multiple crisis lie precisely in the terrible mistake of replacing the “universal democratic principles” of social justice, solidarity, equality … with the principles of the marketplace. This has resulted in increased economic inequality, fomenting social unrest and underscoring the unbearable lightness of democracy, to paraphrase Kundera.. It is now possible to strengthen democracy in order to achieve the radical change that President Obama represents among the world’s leaders: dialogue, collaboration, constantly seeking peace through justice and equal dignity for all human beings. “Together,” he has said, “we can.” It is now possible, because it has been made clear that multilateralism is essential. It’s not about reinforcing some of the institutions of the System, but rather about radically changing them. If we were to limit ourselves to merely reforming our financial institutions, it would be as if Roosevelt had stopped at Bretton Woods. Indeed, in 10 or 12 years it will be possible for that long-desired change of an era to take place, transitioning from a culture of force and imposition to a culture of dialogue, conciliation, alliance and peace. The time has arrived for a great transition from a culture of force to a culture of the word. Until just recently immense amounts of money were still being spent on weapons for conventional warfare, which since the Vietnam conflict have fallen into disuse. The Bush administration took military spending, both its own and that of others (the “allied” countries), to unimaginable limits. But now, fortunately – and this is another important factor in transcending our present crisis situation - President Obama has decided to lead the way toward disarmament, offering a concrete plan to reduce arsenals, change the focus and stop the proliferation of nuclear warheads. As Obama has said, “We must choose between investments to maintain the security of the American people and others chosen to enrich a manufacturing company or a large contractor.” It is now possible, while strengthening the multinational system and immediately eliminating tax havens (finally bringing before the courts the criminals that traffic in arms, drugs, patents, money and people), to partially replace spending on weapons with investments in sustainable global development: renewable energies, food production (agriculture, aquaculture and biotechnology), obtaining and distributing water, health, transportation, housing… . Only then will . . .the breeding grounds that create migratory flows of desperate people and violence be avoided. This is now possible, due to that innermost feeling that the raised fist must finally give way to the outstretched hand. The key words are “involvement” and “sharing.” I am sure that at this time the great majority of employed citizens would contribute to a Voluntary Solidarity Fund. What we cannot do is to always assume that these problems – to which we have largely consented with our silence and inaction –will be solved by those who failed to restrain systems based on deregulation and speculation. “All human beings equal in dignity:” this is the key – so lucidly expressed in the UNESCO Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human rights - to entering a new era. All human beings capable of creating, imagining, inventing, and undertaking this new beginning, in the knowledge that we have the necessary abilities and will. And then, unlike those who remain anchored in the past and in their privileges, unlike the sceptics and faint-hearted, we will commence the change that we all desire, toward that other world of our dreams. With serenity, because we know that we can do it. As Álvaro Cunqueiro so beautifully observed: “The bird sings while the bow breaks, because he knows the strength of his wings.” By Federico Mayor Zaragoza.

A Spanish scientist, poet and politician, Federico Mayor Zaragoza served as Director-General of UNESCO for 12 years, beginning in 1987. Under his leadership, UNESCO created the Culture of Peace Programme which emphasizes education for peace, human rights and democracy among its themes. In 1994, Mayor was instrumental in establishing 5 October to be marked annually as World Teachers’ Day. This article was originally published in El País and is reproduced here in a somewhat abbreviated form with permission of the author. It was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 32, December 2009.