Chapter 2: Global Issues

“I believe that man will not merely endure. He will prevail.”

 William Faulkner , 1950

The astronauts’ vision of our small and fragile planet confirmed for the first time through the human eye what the mind had long known and what the manifold interconnections of human activity across the globe daily demonstrate: the nations of the world are inseparably linked. It is generally recognized that global issues can only be dealt with multilaterally, through the combined action of governments, international and regional organizations and, probably most important of all, the peoples immediately affected. However, global problems do not necessarily have global solutions. Every region and every culture has its own specificity. While some of today’s most pressing problems – the population explosion, the deteriorating environment, the growing poverty in the Third World, the proliferation of mass destruction weapons, terrorism and drug abuse – require the co-operation of governments as well as a multitude of institutions and individuals across the world, their particular solutions may call for differing treatment. A humanitarian response to the great issues of our time recognizes both their global nature and the need for flexibility in approach.

In order to avoid duplication with the work of existing organizations at national and international level on the global issues dealt with in this chapter and in view of the limited mandate and time available to our Commission , we did not examine these issues in depth. However, for the purpose of highlighting their humanitarian implications and with a view to presenting a comprehensive picture of the human condition, we felt it would be useful to flag some of the global issues of relevance to our work. The following paragraphs of our Report should be viewed in that light.



Few contemporary issues have as far-reaching humanitarian implications as the problem of world population growth. At the beginning of this century, our planet had less than two billion people. Today it supports over five billion and is expected to sustain over six billion by the end of the century. Although the world’s population increases by more than a million every five days, the rate of increase is slowly diminishing. However, the decline in the rate of world population growth is distorted and deceptive. The fall has occurred almost exclusively in China and the developed countries . Ironically, birth rates remain high in countries which can least afford big populations. As mortality rates continue to come down and the number of women entering childbearing age grows, the world population is expected steadily to increase to almost ten billion before it stabilizes.

The pattern of world population growth, which has important humanitarian im plications , is likely to remain uneven. According to the United Nat ions, more than 90 per cent of the expected increase between 1980 and 2025 will be concentrated in developing countries. The greatest expansion is projected to be in Africa whose 1980 population of 476 million is expected to more than triple by 2025. By then the populations of Latin America and South Asia are expected to have almost doubled , that of East Asia to have increased by 43 per cent , those of North America and the Soviet Union to have grown by 38 per cent, but that of Europe by only 9 per cent. By the year 2025, 83 per cent of the world ‘ s population will be living in Asia, Africa and Latin America.       ·

The already difficult task of national development is being made increasingly arduous for many countries by continuing high rates of population growth . This is bound to exacerbate further existing economic and social strains.

The prospect of future population growth will inevitably coincide with changing age structures heavily weighted towards the young in developing countries. In some, as much as 50 percent of the total population is already under 15 years of age, compared to about 20 per cent in developed countries. By the end of the century, the population under 30 years old will increase by over 500 million in developing countries and constitute 60 per cent of the population.

The increasing number of young people, especially in developing countries, has made it considerably more difficult to meet their basic needs. Although many children engage in economically productive work in the developing world, a relatively small percentage of the adult population bears primary responsibility for feeding, clothing, housing and educating them. As a result, millions of children, the most vulnerable segment of the global community, are neglected, abandoned and forced to fend for themselves.

But the problems are not all likely to occur with the burgeoning number of young people. As health care improves and mortality rates decline, the number of elderly people (age 65 and over) continues to grow. By the end of the century, the world’s elderly population will increase by 43 per cent. Over 70 per cent of this increase will occur in developing countries. Although the elderly will account for only 5 per cent and 13 percent of the developing and developed countries’ populations respectively, there is an emerging fear that the cost of caring for the elderly will become overly burdensome. Traditional support for the unique social, economic and medical needs of the aged has already begun to erode, as struggling young populations place greater demands on relatively limited resources. Unless comprehensive forward-looking programmes are designed and implemented to enable the elderly to be independent and productive in their latter years, this clash of priorities will only worsen. Moreover, in the developed countries, the quality of life and medical care have ensured longevity. At the same time, the population growth of many of these countries is stagnant. Caring for the aged is bound to strain the welfare state, engendering new humanitarian problems. While populations in the North will be ageing, the populations in the South will be getting younger. This imbalance will have its own repercussions on North/South relations.

In order to introduce some balance in the uncontrolled growth in the population of developing countries, programmes to encourage greater use of family planning seem not only desirable but essential, as the countries most seriously affected have themselves acknowledged. However, it is important that these programmes only take place with the agreement and co-operation of the individuals involved. Greater emphasis on education and training about family planning is required. Moreover , there is now a general recognition that poverty is a prime cause as well as an effect of excessive population growth. Poor people tend to have larger families as a form of socio­ economic insu rance. Population policies must therefore go hand in hand with development programmes designed to raise the incomes of the poor , literacy levels and the status of women. One specific aspect of the disparities in wealth and population increases between the North and the South is the increasing movement of populations from the poor countries to the rich. Although the numbers of people moving to the North is relatively small, they are already straining the absorption capacity of the receiving countries. This, in turn, is leading to the emergence of xenophobia and increased social tensions. This phenomenon needs to be studied not only in terms of national economies and labour markets but also in the context of its social and humanitarian implications. Above all, there is a need to address the root causes of these population movements and to develop imaginative long-term policies which fully take into account the humanitarian aspects.

The problems of over-population and rapid population increase are largely being left for future generations to tackle. Many parts of the world are faced with the continuing prospect as well as already existing reality of widespread hunger and poverty, massive unemployment, rapid urban growth and environmental degradation.

Although more food is being produced globally than ever before, more people are chronically malnourished than at any previous time . Yet it is estimated that our planet possesses enough food, minerals and energy resources to sustain life at an adequate level for at least JO billion people – twice the present world population .




The rapid growth of the world’s population is also causing damage to the environment. Among the ecological stresses associated with overpopulation are overgrazing, depleting fish stocks, deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and the loss of unique species. Over one-third of the world’s arable land is threatened by desertification, a subject dealt with later in this Report. The demand for water is growing at a greater rate than the world’s population due to expanding agricultural, industrial and domestic use. In the near future, water shortages are expected to become increasingly frequent, particularly in urban areas.

Efforts are called for to contain erosion, increase water retention and replant forests in order to meet estimated needs by the end of the century. Conservation measures, long-term planning and adequate allocation of resources are necessary. Grave damage to the earth’s life-support system has already occurred and will escalate unless well-planned measures are taken. However, governmental responses to date have been disappointing.

Damage to the environment occurs not only because too many people are concentrated in a given location but also because they are struggling to survive. A substantial amount of environmental destruction takes place out of sheer human necessity coupled with ignorance. That ignorance is not only the property of those people living and struggling to survive at the very margins of existence. Damage has also been inflicted on the environment by industrialized societies which have tended to ignore the ecological consequences of their actions. In the long term , the result affects us all, rich and poor alike.

Atmospheric pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels. the clearing and burning of forests. and intensive agricultural practices involving pesticides and other synthetic chemicals, threatens to harm the environment irreparably . Scientists estimate that a build-up in the atmosphere of certain carbon. nitrogen and chlorine compounds will change the earth’s climate more during the next 50 to 75 years than has happened over the last 15,000 years – the so-called greenhouse effect. Scientists are also increasingly expressing concern about the depletion of the ozone layer due to extensive use of chlorofluorocarbons. Temperature and rainfall patterns may be affected worldwide, the level of the seas may rise and the earth’s ecosystems be upset in unpredictable ways. The annual cost of such a climatic change could approach 3 percent of the world’s gross economic output , perhaps cancelling the benefits of economic growth.

Our abuse of the environment has now reached beyond the atmosphere to litter space with technological debris. Ultimately human-beings and the soil of their planet are one common clay. It would be tragic if global destruction, rather than attention to global needs or acceptance of global fellowship , were to bring that realization home.

We recognize that this brief account of environmental problems does not do justice to a subject which has important implications for us and for future generations. We direct attention to the detailed studies of the humanitarian aspects of desertification and deforestation which have been carried out by our Commission as well as the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.


Poverty and Development

The elimination of poverty and the satisfaction of basic human needs is still a goal which challenges both individuals and societies. Indeed, despite all indi vidu al, national and inter­ national efforts, the majority of people encounter famine, disease and death as an almost daily consequence of their poverty. All our technological achievements and all our mastery of material things do not prevent human-beings from dying of malnutrition every minute of every day somewhere on this planet.

There remain large areas of absolute poverty, particularly in Africa and Asia. Far from improving, in Sub-Saharan Africa per capita incomes have been falling for over a decade. Low­ income Africa is now poorer than in 1960, and the World Bank projects a further decline over the next decade. The prospects for the absolute poor, now numbering some 800 million, are more desperate than ever before.

This tragic situation cries out for remedy. Human develop­ ment is the ultimate goal of national development. Yet, after four decades of developmental efforts by the international community, hundreds of millions of our fellow human-beings still live and die in hunger. Much of the reason why the development process is facing great strains and renewed uncertainty is to be found in the recent world recession. The international economy favours the rich industrialized countries. Indeed in recent years the world has moved away from international economic co-operation and may be moving towards a new era of economic domination and dependence.

At a time when the world is experiencing a great mobility of capital, the needy countries of the Third World are being starved of funds. The total net flow of money from the West to the Third World has fallen dramatically in the 1980s. The biggest falls have been in private investment, commercial bank loans and government export credits. The fall in private capital transfers , the largest part of total resource flows, has been particularly sharp, from $74 billion in 1981 to only $29 billion in 1985, with bank loans falling even further than investment. Aid from Western countries to the Third World has fallen to 0.35 percent of gross domestic product , half of the target set by the United Nations in 1971 of0.7 per cent.

As Third World populations grew by some 10 per cent between 1981 and 1985, total resource flows from Western countries per recipient actually fell by nearly 50 per cent. The developing countries need to double the present inflows of capital by 1990 if they are to achieve a growth rate of 5 per cent a year. Debt servicing now outstrips new financial flows to the Third World. In June 1986, the World Bank itself revealed that it had become a net recipient of funds from middle-income developing countries. Africa will be heavily dependent over the next few years on major external capital flows simply for recovery The need for fresh flows of capital to the poorer countries is greater than ever.

However , the concern of ordinary people, particularly in the industrialized countries has grown as that of their governments has diminished. In I985, the year of worldwide publicity for the famine in Africa, the non-governmental organizations, which include the major famine relief agencies, recorded an impressive 20 per cent increase in their contributions. The overall picture, however, remains one of inadequacy in the face of ever-increasing human need.

The struggle against poverty is crucial to the future of our global human society and it concerns people and governments everywhere. There is a need to increase agricultural yields, as well as to make major policy changes in the relationship of agriculture to industry and of farmers to city dwellers. Some one billion people in rural areas of the Third World are landless or nearly so. Costly programmes of land reclamation, rural credit and infrastructural development are required and the problem of land distribution needs to be addressed.

Yet the necessary emphasis on agriculture must not obscure the needs of the world’s city dwellers. At the present time our planet has some 250 cities of over a million people each. Of these 100 are in the developing world . By the end of the century there will be 440 such cities and 300 – almost two-thirds – of them will be in the developing world. Poverty, illiteracy, malnut rition , disease, high infant mortality and low life­ expectancy, and the resultant denial of human potential for the multitude of individuals concerned will put severe strains on the social, national and international fabric of our society.


Global Militarization

Perhaps, for the first time in human history, millions of people the world over are not just uncertain about their own future or concerned about their children’s future, they are deeply anxious about the future of.our entire planet. Their anxiety springs from the fact that man now has the capacity to eradicate human life from this planet many times over. With the aid of their military industrial establishments, the superpowers have, during recent years, elevated their rivalry to such a level that fear is beginning to subvert reason.

The argument that a nuclear deterrence strategy, which until now has underpinned the arms race, has succeeded in keeping the peace between East and West for nearly 40 years cannot be easily dismissed. But, as nuclear weapons proliferate and the destructive power of those weapons becomes more apocalyptic, the proposition that we must have this massive capacity to annihilate ourselves totally has lost all credibility.

The arms race pollutes the ethical stream of human survival not only by threatening man’s physical existence but also by impairing his prospects for development, particularly the more balanced and sustainable development now widely recognized as essential. When almost one trillion dollars are devoted every year to military expenditure, when the great majority of the world’s scientists, engineers and technicians are engaged in military-related research or production, when the military culture becomes paramount in the corridors and council chambers of world power and spreads even to the developing world, real development is not only neglected, it is negated. This is the case for all countries, rich and poor, but with the most devastating consequences for the poorest.

One of the most tragic consequences of a civilization geared for war rather than peace is the rapid spread of militarization throughout the countries of the Third World, in defiance of the evident gravity of developmental need. One quarter of the Third World’s crippling debt burden of nearly $1,000 billion results from arms purchases. While Third World arms imports have fallen recently, due partly to declining oil revenue and to the debt crisis, Third World arms industries have continued to grow, with over fifty developing countries having their own arms industries by 1985 .

The reality behind these facts is of a world in which the insecurity of its people is increasing , not diminishing; a world failing to work to create a climate of peace and international understanding conducive to meeting the great challenges of our time; a world squandering its treasure on the worthless dross of armaments and denying vast resources to the needs of human development. Armed violence , and the atmosphere of distrust which feeds it, call for our most urgent attention. The technical knowledge to bring about disarmament exists but the realization of world peace and global security require a new humanitarian commitment from all of us.



Failures within the international community to respond to aspirations of nationhood, and to resolve deep-seated communal and racial grievances have all too frequently led to acts of terrorism. Terrorism is by no means a new phenomenon. The term is used, sometimes wrongly, to describe a wide variety of violent activities, but is usually understood to mean the use or threat of violence designed to achieve a political purpose by individuals or small groups. As such, it has much in common with the actions of resistance movements in territories occupied by hostile forces, a comparison which immediately suggests the ambiguities inherent in the word terrorist, since one man’s terrorist may be another’s resistance or freedom-fighter.

Unlike earlier forms of it, modern terrorism often takes place far from the country or regime against which its acts are directed, and adds hostage-taking to the political assassinations of earlier times.

For terrorist action to have the required effect of striking terror or achieving a particular political aim, it must have as widespread an impact as possible. The contemporary global community offers an ideal echo-chamber. Modern media coverage together with the new information technology means that news of the action can reach a mass audience within minutes of its occurrence.

Terrorism has become in recent years a serious impediment to the development of international co-operation and multi­ lateralism. It is part of a spectrum of global violence and reflects the increasing reliance on violent methods. These methods are not employed only by aggrieved groups but also by governments to harass opponents. According to the United Nations, ‘disappearances’, kidnapping, torture and murder are practised by governments , or by para-military groups protected by them, in almost forty countries. This particular form of terrorism received our special attention and is discussed later in this Report.

Terrorism is an affront to humanity. It violates the principles of international co-operation and understanding between nations which are central to an international humanitarian perspective. It can only be combated effectively through collective action , tenaciously pursued at the global level on the basis of common principles.


The International Drug Problem

 Illicit drug trafficking is one of the most lucrative forms of international trade with profits running into billions of dollars. In the United States, the retail value of the illicit drug trade, an estimated $125 billion, is bigger than most of the giant business corporations. In poor countries, drug money is capable of transforming national economies and undermining fragile political structures.

International crime syndicates are directly connected with the illicit drug trade and launder profits through established financial institutions. The full extent of such transactions is difficult to quantify in the absence of access to bank records but a significant proportion is reportedly recycled for investment in orthodox business ventures. Drug money also appears to be closely associated with the international arms trade and is an important element in several on-going armed conflicts.

Contrary to the general view of illicit drug use and narcotic flows which tends to see drug addiction as a problem faced mainly by industrialized countries as a result of opium poppy and coca cultivation in the Third World, facts and figures tell a different story. The bulk of opium production is used locally with a staggering 60 per cent of the world’s heroin supply consumed in Asia. Up till now, activities aimed at cutting off supplies have been a major preoccupation of the authorities. This has led to the processing facilities being set up closer to the point of production, which, in turn , has resulted in higher consumption levels and social and economic disruption in Third World countries. Often crop eradication programmes in one area have led to increased production elsewhere.

Crop substitution programmes have had equally ambiguous results. In general, they have shown little appreciation of the social and cultural setting and economic imperatives which favour the cultivation of crops used in the illicit production of narcotics. While the income made by the peasant farmers is negligible as compared to the retail value of illicit drugs, for many it is their only means of survival.


Law enforcement measures aimed at thwarting supply routes and penalizing or regulating the distribution and consumption of intoxicants, are effective methods to curb drug abuse. Strengthened police activities are almost an automatic response when the prevalence of drug addiction increases or becomes an issue that commands public attention. However, one of the major pitfalls of a Jaw-enforcement approach is the tendency to narrow the focus to cutting off supplies and the justification of measures, however inappropriate, aimed at realizing this objective. Some countries have resorted to draconian legislation, including the death penalty, for possession of a prohibited drug.

On a practical level, treating drug addicts as criminals does not resolve the problem. Those who direct and control the illicit drug trade are rarely prosecuted. Notwithstanding sophisticated surveillance technology, stronger patrols and bigger budgets, police and customs officials can, at best, hope to intercept between 3 and 10 percent of drugs illicitly entering a country. A more realistic assessment of the poverty and chronic underdevelopment which characterize the production of crops in source countries would greatly benefit the formulation of programmes geared to peasants’ needs as opposed to the current emphasis on eradicating drug-producing crops. Crop­ substitution programmes have an important role to play in combating drug abuse but must take into account the cultural, social and economic situation of the people most directly affected.

Drug abuse and trafficking have emerged as a threat not just to a few countries but to the world community as a whole. The repercussions tend to go beyond the problem of drugs to arms trafficking and national security. To date, however, our international system has been largely ineffective in reducing the impact of this trade on human lives. It seems more urgent than ever that the system of multilateral co-operation is strengthened to find a global response to this growing problem.