By Downing Thomas, Dean of International Programs
The blogs and the press have been fast and furious in following the fast-paced and unprecedented changes in both Tunisia and Egypt over the past several weeks. Indeed, there has been so much going on, and so much processing of events in the media, that it has kept me quiet, reading accounts or glued to the TV rather than commenting on what has been happening in the world. I have found a few truly insightful pieces, and was impressed by the reporting in the NY Times last Sunday about the difficult discussions and awkward statements from the White House and the Department of State.
The breathtaking daily reports from Tahrir Square overshadowed the close of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, at the end of January. Before 2008, there was much celebration of the miracles of globalization in these meetings and boundless faith in free markets. Of course, the tone has changed in recent years, and discussions have been focused on the degree and type of regulations that should be put in place to reduce the risk of calamities like the one that occurred in 2008. This year, there was some timid celebration of a timidly rebounding world economy, despite current and potential future problems (debt in the U.S., Japan, and Europe; possible inflation risks). The delegations from China, India, Brazil, and other growing economies are certainly smiling. But the experts also point out the profoundly unequal nature of the growth that is occurring in many parts of the world, with large swaths of the world population excluded from the benefits of economic growth. These inequalities exist in the very countries and regions that are seeing significant economic growth. Inequality is certainly nothing new in the world. Yet, the very large populations that are left behind can create instabilities that could erupt at any moment. The U.S. is most definitely not a model for the world in terms of income distribution. But the tremendous change and growth in some countries make those areas potentially ripe for the kinds of uprisings we are now seeing in North Africa and the Middle East.
Maybe the officials who left Davos on January 28th should be paying more attention to what has been happening in the Middle East.