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Podcast / February 26 2020

Is Globalization Good for Us?

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What would it take to live without globalization — and is that even possible? Host Nelufar Hedayat attempts to go hyper local in London and talks to author Parag Khanna and Ghanaian agripreneur Nana Adjoa Sifa. One thing is for sure, globalization is a lot more complicated than you think.

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Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.




All right, so I’ve brushed my teeth, I’ve got dressed and I’m going to head downstairs to have some coffee now, and already I can get a sense of exactly how globalized just the first floor of my house is. My toothpaste is made in Poland, my toothbrush made in China. My jacket that I’m wearing right now is made in Morocco, and my — even my mascara is made in France!




NELUFAR: This is “Course Correction,” a podcast from Doha Debates. Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem… and meet the people who are actively working to fix it. I’m Nelufar Hedayat, and I’ve challenged myself to find out just how much my daily life is run by this system that we call globalization. As it turns out — a lot.


Also, everything I own was made far away from where I bought it. So much of what I eat is flown, shipped or driven in. And it’s like that for most people, especially in the global north. The things we buy from abroad are often cheaper than things that are made or grown locally. How can that be?


Well, sometimes it’s because many of the costs are hidden from us. Things can be made more cheaply overseas because workers are paid less. They often work in more dangerous conditions, too.



In Bangladesh’s giant garment industry, factory fires are common and deadly.


Many of the female workers at a factory in West Java say the pay is so low they live in constant debt and can’t afford to live with their own children.


FEMALE AUSTRALIAN NEWSCASTER: And if there were a fire, the workers would find this emergency exit door blocked by boxes.


NELUFAR: And then there’s the issue of what it takes to move all these goods around in the first place. All those planes, ships and trucks? They produce over a billion tons of carbon emissions globally each year.



These ships run on a particularly dirty kind of fuel called “heavy fuel oil” or “bunker fuel.” As NPR’s Rebecca Hersher reports…


…the shipping industry is growing so fast, it’s projected to emit more than 15 percent of greenhouse gases by mid-century. If ships…


If shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest polluter in the world.



NELUFAR: So, what is globalization? Is it as bad as I think it is, and how can we live ethical lives in a globalized world? I speak to someone grabbing globalization with both hands.


We’ve imported tomatoes from Burkina Faso. We imported onion from Cote d’Ivoire. Seriously. What are we doing?


NELUFAR: And an author and thinker who believes globalization is just a part of being human.


We stopped living in a world where everything could be measured purely locally in about the 19th century.


NELUFAR: But before I talk to them, I’m trying to take myself out of this globalization game — without buying an entire new life, that is. And well, it hasn’t really been working out. My initial plan was to avoid using anything that wasn’t made locally. But I failed even before I stepped out of bed in the morning. My sheets were made in China.


So, knowing that I actually need to leave the house to work today, I decided it might first be useful to understand how much of my modern life depends on globalization. And in fact a more fundamental question came to mind: What even is globalization, and why do I have this foggy idea that I’m to dislike it?

So I’m putting on my shoes (made in Vietnam) and my coat (made in Morocco), and venturing out into Londontown to see if there’s any way I can consume more locally. But everywhere I turn, there are signs of globalization. No, literally: There were signs.


NELUFAR: So I’m just waiting at the platform for my train to arrive as usual, and right in front of me there’s an ad for a bank that operates in the U.K. but is originally from Hong Kong, and it says, “Who do we think we are? The United Kingdom, where we remind folk that Rome wasn’t built in a day as we struggle for Swedish flapjacks and inevitably have to pardon our French. We’re not an island, we’re part of something far, far bigger.”

Now, I don’t think that a bank really cares about unity or globalization or community, but what does it actually mean to be sipping on Kenyan coffee and drinking beer from Belgium?






NELUFAR: So I’ve come into my local food store where I get a lot of my stuff for the week, and I’m just going to do a regular shop, but I’m going to try as best as I can to shop locally.


  1. Let’s start small. Let’s try and get some fruit. OK, bananas completely out, that’s come all the way from the Dominican Republic. No blueberries this week — they’ve come from America. Avocados from Peru, but I need them so much! What will I eat in the mornings? All right.

NELUFAR: Just think of the hundreds and thousands of miles in your shopping basket anytime you pop down to your local store.


NELUFAR: Come on, tomatoes. Come on. I need some tomatoes. Ooh, Isle of Wight U.K.! OK! I’ve got, I’ve got tomatoes this week, guys. I’m extremely excited, extremely excited. So no apples. OK. No oranges.


All right, guys. I made a decision to extend what “local” means to me to include Europe. Otherwise I can’t get any fresh fruit or veg. So I’m going to grab some organic pears here from Ireland and an apple from France. A honey crunch apple. I can get those. All right. They’re going in.



That’s everything? OK, thanks.


NELUFAR: Thank you, cheers.


NELUFAR: So I’ve left the store and I’ve got all my shopping with me. And as you imagine, I have absolutely cheated — I did buy the blueberries. I needed the blueberries! I bought them.




NELUFAR: OK, I’m not proud of moving the line for what “local” and “international” means. But to be honest, all of this is a little confusing. Who decides if tomatoes from Spain or the Isle of Wight should be in this store? Is it the free market? The company? Consumer demand? How can it be possible that fresh fruit and veg coming from across vast oceans are cheaper than something grown in farms a few hundred miles away?


“Globalization” is the catch-all term for all the forces and laws and systems that make this possible. It’s the international financial systems, market demand, transportation systems, multinational corporations, communication systems.


And beyond getting American blueberries for my London breakfast cereal, it has a real human impact.


Parag Khanna is the author of several books about global commerce and competition, technology and the spread of ideas. He says when we think of globalization, we think of stuff. But it’s much more than that.


So the movement of things around the world is globalization. The movement of goods, people, services, data, ideas, technologies.


NELUFAR: People, ideas, technology. So the development of globalized networks does do some good in the world. But we pay for it, not just in dollars and pounds.


PARAG: Globalization has enormous costs associated with it. A lot of them are horribly negative. We get on a plane and fly so seamlessly, right? That has costs, right, to the climate, that we’re not properly internalizing when we think about how much it costs to get something or do something.


NELUFAR: Measuring the toll globalization takes on, say, the planet, versus the benefits we reap from it — isn’t easy. And no one has a real equation to figure it out. To figure out when, say, a new pair of sneakers is worth having a kid in the global south working in a factory instead of going to school.


Or whether those sneakers are worth their own carbon footprint. Everyone’s playing by their own rules.


PARAG: The sad thing is, the reason you don’t have a global climate agreement, where all countries say, “Yes, let’s put a stop to this”, is because there are winners and losers from climate change, right? Why do Russia, Canada and these other countries in the high Arctic that are big oil producers — they don’t really care about their climate commitments.


NELUFAR: Globalization did this?


PARAG: I’m not saying globalization did this. I’m saying that you’re not going to have global agreement on how to regulate a lot of things if you depend on, you know, governments agreeing on things. Because there are winners and losers from this dimension of globalization, and therefore you’re not able to control the consequences in a comprehensive global way. So you have to make local changes if you want to stop negative global bad things from happening.


NELUFAR: How do I do that? I’m only Nel.


PARAG: You need a lot more local change. And this is why we should be paying attention to, and reporting on, and encouraging the local activism. And to me, it is about the Chinese protesters who say, “Wait a minute, why are you doing this, you know, plastic dump here in our town.” That’s one of the things that’s going on right now, for example.


Today, the air in Beijing is the cleanest it’s been in 40 years, according to every measurement. Why? Because of course it’s become a very rich country. It’s the largest economy in the whole world. The people of Beijing are pretty wealthy per capita. They said, “Look, we want bike lanes. We don’t want any more diesel cars. We want better public transportation. We want all those factories moved far away — or either far away from the city or shut down entirely.” And that’s what they’ve done.


NELUFAR: People around the world are driving a change towards responsible global economies.


NELUFAR: What are some of the greatest benefits of globalization?


PARAG: Obviously, the enrichment of human society in terms of economic growth and welfare, the spread of technology and ideas, right? Every one of these things requires globalization. Every phone call you make to someone around the world is globalization. The thing is, that a lot of people today, the first thing they think of when they make a phone call with a wireless phone is — they, they think of connectivity as something that is wireless, that’s just in the ether. It’s not. It requires that we have built this infrastructure of globalization. Contacting any other human being in the world with one phone call, right? Those are some of the accomplishments of globalization and it’s — it is way too much to quantify. You know, there’ve been studies that have tried to figure out — if you could put a dollar value, you can’t even measure all of the secondary and third-order kind of benefits of just building a road. It’s unquantifiable how beneficial building infrastructure is around the world.


NELUFAR: A local government, a council, a borough, a state, a province can do just that. That’s got nothing to do with globalization. But it’s just when you add them all up cumulatively that you and I can drive down the road here in Edinburgh, where we are, but we didn’t build that road. It’s got nothing to do with us using it. That happened here, of itself, on a local level.


PARAG: The asphalt you use to build a road may have come from somewhere else. The workers probably came from another country. The car that you drove on, obviously, wasn’t made here. We stopped living in a world where everything could be measured purely locally in about the 19th — somewhere during the 19th century.


NELUFAR: Khanna says there are very few parts of the world left that are totally self-sufficient. Even rural or underdeveloped areas have been influenced by globalization.


PARAG: Someone who is a migrant worker, on the other side of the planet from where they’re from, is able to reach home with a phone call, send money back via mobile payments and remittances. All of those things happen — again — because of some form of globalization, right? So it is about the local benefits of people having migrated, moved, globalized in some way.


NELUFAR: Globalization has benefited everyone, in every nation, when it comes to access to information, goods and technology.


PARAG: If you look at the last 20 years of economic growth and integration into the world economy and a lot of the benefits — and whether it’s technologies and consumer goods, other practices that have been adopted in parts of Africa and Latin America — it’s because of globalization, right? It’s because of their economies no longer being exploited in a colonial fashion the way they were through the mid-20th century. And so it’s really in the last 25 years, 30 years, where you can say that there are a lot of underdeveloped countries of the south, a lot of post-colonial countries, that finally get to make their own decisions about how they’re going to participate in the world. We still live in a very unequal world, economically. We still live in a very stratified world in terms of the power that countries have, but when a country in sub-Saharan Africa is able to sell their agricultural — their crops and their output, to Asian countries and not be dependent only on their former European colonial masters, that’s because of globalization. Please thank globalization for that. For the money it brought in, for the new technologies brought in, for the new farms — you better thank globalization for that.


NELUFAR: All right, I’m going to give a small thank you. Thank you, globalization.


PARAG: A really, really big one. It is all globalization. Please give 90 percent of your thanks to globalization. Because, let’s be honest with ourselves —


NELUFAR: OK, I see what he’s saying. But the fact is, while the global north commands globalization and gobbles up most of the benefits, the global south suffers from most of the associated problems. Sure, there is a trickle down effect — the global south benefits from globalization, too. But with it comes low pay, substandard working conditions and more severe weather patterns from climate change.


NELUFAR: I have actually been to a garment factory in Bangladesh, and I have actually been to look at, as a journalist, what it’s like for those women who are earning a wage, and I understand that they are being exploited because they’re not being paid enough. They risk sexual violence. I would rather starve than have to work in those conditions. The point is, is that why is that woman then making that choice? Because it’s better than what she has. It’s a risk she’s willing to take —


PARAG: Or what else she might have to do.


NELUFAR: She’s calculated that, I hate the way that agency’s taken away from her.


PARAG: Right.


NELUFAR: Because I think it’s a terrible risk for her to take. That’s easy for me to say.


PARAG: But there’s good globalization to deal with those problems as well. The good globalization is also — and it’s not just things, right? — it’s also ideas. It’s when NGOs go in there and, and media organizations go in there, and scrutinize those horrible, exploitative practices and they shame them. And then that trickles up the supply chain to the owners — in Europe and America — of those factories. They say, “You know what? We do have to pay them more.”


NELUFAR: Do you just have to be, like, “lesser of all evils” about it? Like the ends justifies the means about it when it comes to globalization?


PARAG: To me, globalization is not an end in itself. It’s just something that has been happening for many, many millennia. I’m not saying it’s good or it’s bad. I’m saying it’s human. It’s as human as controlling fire.


NELUFAR: But who controls this fire? Who holds the power of globalization? Is it big corporations? Or government officials? Or you and me?


PARAG: That’d take a long time to answer. But look, globalization, make no mistake, is an imperial enterprise. Globalization is today actually the result of empires, superpowers actually wanting to expand their influence as much as possible, to extract their resources and sell it and profit from it. It is things like Russian — the Russian and British empires, using railways to penetrate deep into colonies. That is all globalization. Up until 1945, globalization became what it is because you’ve had lots of empires always seeking to expand and control greater geographies, right? From European —


NELUFAR: Which is terrible!


PARAG: I’m saying that now, though, you have the legacy of all of that. You still have the railways, you have the telegraph, cables. Now you’ve got the internet. And now you see countries saying, I’m going to stand up. I’m not going to let history repeat itself. I’m not going to let China be the new British East India Company. I’m going to demand that China not just take our stuff, but that they buy from us, that they train our workers, that they invest in our infrastructure. Right? And so that’s, that’s, that’s a relatively new idea. Taming, controlling, shaping globalization for public benefit is not something they talked about in the 18th century. But we’re talking about it today. And that’s a really good idea.


NELUFAR: Parag Khanna, thank you so much for talking to me.


PARAG: Thank you.




NELUFAR: Back in London, I arrive at the final and most important stop on my shopping trip — the coffee store. And it’s got me thinking about how to make sure globalization does more good for everybody. Claudia, who works at the shop, is from Venezuela, where it is possible to grow coffee.


NELUFAR: If I was trying to make coffee in the U.K., would you think I’d be successful? You’re shaking your head.



Listen, it’s so hard even to get a good tomato in U.K. So how you going to pretend to get coffee?


NELUFAR: Her co-worker Laura is from Spain. And she’d like to have the option of buying more domestically produced goods. That would mean changing Spain’s economy — not just what people can buy, but the kind of work they do.



That would be hard, but I think it will be, it will be nice, you know, to have things made in my country.


NELUFAR: That’s interesting. Hard but nice.


LAURA: Yeah. I mean, of course we need to get used to it, because we aren’t used to live this kind of life where you have everything and you want more. You have 20 pairs of shoes and you need to buy five more because, oh my god, they’re beautiful. But I mean this is the way we are used to, but I think we can get used to another kinds of living, you know? And it would be amazing. You’re not taking anything to the other world. Right. So just live your life and have less, I mean, be happier.


NELUFAR: This dissatisfaction that Laura, Claudia and I feel seems to come from a sense that globalization is doing no favors for the environment, and hurting some people in poorer countries just to make more stuff for other people to buy.


My life would be a little less luxurious without globalization, but now I’m wondering if a life that’s “hard but nice” would be better than a life that’s easy but maybe unethical?


Part of making globalization more ethical could mean supporting local entrepreneurs to reshape their local markets, working conditions and national economies. Local entrepreneurs like Nana Adjoa Sifa.


I am a proud farmer. And I also train young women in agribusiness.


NELUFAR: She’s one of Ghana’s new agripreneurs — and she’s working to revitalize the country’s farming industry through organic, sustainable practices.


NANA: Fortunately for me, I got a group of like-minded people to start with. We were just passionate. We just wanted to start. We thought passion was enough. So we were starting — we were bent on making money because we had, we had heard there is money in farming.


We didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t even test the soil. On the first day I went with my team and we got some boys to help us from the community. So we started weeding, clearing the land. We wanted to do organic because that’s what we believe in. So we wanted to go natural. So we started, and it was difficult. Trust me, it was super difficult.


NELUFAR: Really.


NANA: Yes, so —



NANA: Because we had to wake up early and then start at six because of the sun. We will be in, we’ll be weeding and preparing the land, getting all the stumps out. It was a lot of work.


NELUFAR: Since then, Nana Adjoa’s farm has done well, but she’s still working to overcome a lot of stereotypes about what farming is, and what farmers look like.


NANA: Yeah, so five, six years ago, it was unheard of. I mean, for a young woman graduate to say, “Oh, I want to be a farmer.” Because when we were growing up, all the pictures we saw on TV about farmers, all about farming, were people in tattered clothing. I thought that farmers were poor people, you know. Farmers were old people. And this is a perception most of the young people had.


NELUFAR: Sometimes in Ghana, teachers would warn their students, “If you don’t study hard, you’ll grow up to be a cassava farmer.”


NANA: But now the narrative is changing. So now a lot of young people want to go into this sector. And we have seen parents allowing their children to also think about farming as a career. I mean, you can get a young, sexy woman who wants to be a farmer.




NANA: Like myself. Yeah? So if I go, if I go to a certain place and they ask, “What do you do?” I tell them I’m a proud farmer. They all look at me, “Are you serious? I don’t think you’re a farmer.” But I’m not the only one.


NELUFAR: How does it feel to — to have to face those challenges of what people perceive farming and agribusiness to be?


NANA: So if I go out to a place and people say, “How can a beautiful woman or girl like you be in this sector?” I just look at the produce with them like, “I produce your food.” ’Cause if you don’t produce — I mean, if you’re all lawyers, doctors, engineers, how do we feed this nation? So this is what I am doing now. Trying to transform the mindsets of especially young women to see agribusiness as a career.


NELUFAR: Now, you mentioned something really important. In a lot of developing countries, women make up the majority of farmworkers, of producers. They are the ones who are feeding these nations and increasing food security. And yet women are the ones most at risk when investment or education in farming is lost. They could lose their jobs. They could lose their livelihoods. And women are always affected more when it comes to farming. How have you set up your business as an agripreneur to try and get more women to become farmers?


NANA: l always say that the banking sector is attractive. Not because there is money, yeah? But the perception people have about the banking sector. We should make this sector attractive. So this is what we are doing.


I will be very glad if a lot of young women are into the sector. So for example, if you took off the giant agribusiness companies in Ghana, most of them are run by men. And this is what I am championing, this is what my organization is championing. That we need more women in there. Not just to be there, but to climb the ladder so that there will be role models and mentors to other people.


NELUFAR: And Ghana could use more farmers. The country has plenty of arable land, but it imports a lot of its food.


NANA: I was shocked because I didn’t know, I had never seen that. And then I realized that, oh, we’ve imported tomatoes from Burkina Faso. We imported cabbage. We imported onions from Cote d’Ivoire. So it was really a shock that Ghana — with all its fertile land and favorable weather or climate — could import from neighboring countries. I actually cringed. Seriously. What are we doing?


NELUFAR: Do you think that there’s a place for globalization and the import of vast amounts of food into Ghana, but also to export food out of Ghana? Do you believe that this globalized system can be beneficial to you, your farm and Ghanaians?


NANA: Yes, it can. I think it has already started. For example, I am looking at the regional integration where, even amongst ourselves as Africans, we can trade easily. So for example, I can just export foods to Togo, to Cote d’Ivoire, to Kenya, to South Africa, without any restrictions, OK? And they can also do same. Currently it is not possible, but we are hoping that it will become possible so we can export.


NELUFAR: So Nana, you actually want globalization to be a success in Ghana. You support it?


NANA: I do. Hundred percent.


NELUFAR: Wow. I started this journey making this podcast being sick and fed up of all of my stuff being made in China and Indonesia, Bangladesh, you know? And the harm it does to the environment to get this stuff to me, I was just so worried. I thought maybe just doing things locally was the solution. But I don’t think it is.


NANA: So it’s a balance, yeah? We can not import everything. No. And we cannot export everything. So even as much as we are promoting globalization, you should also create a balance.


NELUFAR: But it seems to me your heart — despite the, the business side of agribusiness — your heart is in treating the land with respect, treating your workers with respect, being sustainable and trying to use as little chemicals as possible. Can that even work in Ghana today?


NANA: Yeah, it can work. It can work, but very tough. Very, very difficult. So now we are practicing 100 percent natural farming. Because it is no secret that chemical fertilizers are causing more harm to our bodies and the climate. And we are climate friendly, like you rightly say. We want to respect the environment. So we do everything eco-friendly way.


NELUFAR: Look, Nana, I’m just going to put this to you, OK? The big agribusinesses in America, in South America, in Europe, they are putting profits before everything else. As a shrewd business woman, should you not do the same?


NANA: No. I, I don’t think so. I mean, entrepreneurship is not only about the profit, but it’s also about the impacts you make. That is what I believe, anyways. So we are thinking about profits, but we also think about the impact and the legacy you’re going to make. We are making generational impacts, not in part only for ourselves, but the next generation and the generations to come. So we are not concerned about only us. So why do we deny the next generation that opportunity by cutting down trees, deforesting, using chemicals — harsh, harsh chemicals — on the environment? I don’t think it’s proper. And that is why we are doing what we are doing. Just to do the little we can to make incredible impact.


NELUFAR: Thank you so much for talking to me, and giving me hope where I was nearly about to lose it.


NANA: Thank you very much for having me. Thank you.




NELUFAR: Tangled up with consumer culture, societal advancements and capitalism — globalization is a heady cocktail of things. Here’s Parag Khanna again:

PARAG: Globalization is part of who we are. It’s part of the definition of being human. And so globalization is not something controlled by some distant outside force, by some global body like the United Nations. It is the sum total of all of our interactions. It is what you do and I do. It is what you do when you buy those garments that were made in a factory in Bangladesh without any regard for how much the women got paid, or whether they were exploited or not. It is when you decide to buy that diamond, right, at Tiffany’s, right? You are absolutely complicit.


NELUFAR: Thanks a lot, that’s a personal attack right there.




PARAG: I see you looking at your earrings!

NELUFAR: Stop, how did you know Tiffany’s? That’s astonishing!


PARAG: So every time you say, “Should we stop it? Should we shut up?” Who is the “we” here? The we is either you or someone else, and maybe you can influence that person. Maybe you should try. But that’s going to be the answer to how you change globalization.


NELUFAR: Globalization touches every single person’s life. To judge its success, its efficacy or even if we still need it or not — is a question of our time. Impossible to look at directly, we gauge what we can from the corner of our eye. And from my perspective, there’s a place for it in our future. Maybe a new phase of globalization, where we consider our impact. And where we all consciously participate and write the rules together.


That’s all for the show today. I want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. I’m at @nelufar.h.



“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. This episode was mixed by Dara Hirsch. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.