Alex Perry is a foreign correspondent who has travelled extensively in the developing world, reporting from across Africa and Asia. He is of that increasingly rare breed of journalists who believes in going and seeing things for yourself, a philosophy that has led him well off the beaten track. What he has found in the further flung reaches of our world has led him to an unpopular conclusion: that most people’s experience of globalization has not been positive. In fact, “globalization starts wars”.
Falling off the edge – globalization, world peace and other lies explores this sad hypothesis. While millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and into a new consumer class, most of the world’s population has experienced globalization as inequality. They have watched a small and privileged number accelerate away from the rest, while they themselves have been excluded. If globalization has indeed created a ‘flat world’, in Thomas L Friedman’s phrase, then far too many people are falling off the edge.
India is often cited as one of globalization’s success stories. It’s easy to think of India as full of ambitious young entrepreneurs, IT campuses and call centres. But just 5.2% of the population earn over $4,400 a year. GNP per capita is $3,300, the same as the US in 1880. India is actually missing a middle class, Perry argues. “New wealth was concentrated on a tiny few, and found expression in the explosion of Louis Vuitton and Gucci boutiques that so impressed visiting foreign investors and journalists.”
Since most journalists didn’t venture beyond the nicer parts of the major cities, the reality of India is unreported. In truth, India’s growth has “failed to percolate”. Despite 5 – 8% annual growth, the number of people living on less than $1 a day had fallen by 0.74%, and been entirely offset by rises in population.
Little wonder then, that India’s biggest security challenge is a Maoist rebellion. Perry goes in search of the Naxals, India’s seldom reported Communist insurgency. Nepal has a vicious Maoist rebellion too. These are part of a ‘new left revolution’, which in turn is one of many conflicts born of exclusion. MEND, fighting for justice in the Nigerian deltas, has similar motivations. (Two thirds of new oil discoveries in the last decade have been in Africa, but there are no African oil companies, meaning all the profits go elsewhere.) Tribalism is another motivator, when one ethnic group seems to be overlooked, and there are sections on the Tamils in Sri Lanka and on the unpleasant events of Kenya’s recent election.
Perry devotes most of the book to these campaigns, travelling to the regions and interviewing the rebels. He meets Indonesian pirate kings, terrorist chiefs, Maoist footsoldiers, slumlords. It is here that Falling off the Edge really shines. Resisting the need to talk about his own experiences, even though many of these journeys were clearly an adventure in themselves, Perry gives a voice to those who have been ignored and sidelined by globalization, and who have taken up arms to make sure they get their turn.
In that sense, the book is something of a warning. He hints at other ways of doing things. There’s an inspiring section on Indian businessman Ratan Tata, for example, who believes in creating businesses that meet the needs of the poor. But this is not a book of solutions, and the conclusion is actually rather disappointingly cynical about the prospects for peace. Perry doesn’t offer a plan to fix anything. His job is just to investigate and to report what he finds: that for too many people “the overriding experience of globalization is not one of a rising sense of well-being, but an accelerating sense of injustice.”
Along the way, Falling off the Edge serves as a reminder to pay closer attention to the world, to seek out the bigger picture, and look beyond the easy answers. It’s a call for better journalism: “If you want to know about globalization, if you want to know about mankind, if you want to know where we’re heading, then you have to go where things are changing.”