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Former IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus:

Taiwan Has Something Unique to Offer the World


Taiwan Has Something Unique to Offer the World

By Isabella Wu, Jui-Chen Liao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 374 )

Taiwan’s present economic performance is somewhat disheartening. It lags not only behind the other three Little Dragons of East Asia, but even Thailand and other Asian countries. Has Taiwan really completely lost its ability to be a leading force?

Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) between 1987 and 2000, is convinced that Taiwan has the potential to become a model for sustainable development in Asia. He believes that Taiwan’s leadership on environmental issues and its experiences integrating diverse cultures are very strong latent forces.

Camdessus, a Frenchman and a former governor of the Bank of France, presently sits on the Commission for Africa, which is chaired by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. While Camdessus, as IMF chief in the past, helped developing countries tackle monetary problems, he now assists such countries in solving much broader social issues. On his international missions Camdessus has discovered that it is necessary to gain a deep understanding of cultural differences in countries around the globe in order to be able to pool everyone’s energies to solve problems such as the currently hotly debated subject of global warming or the water resources crisis. And when Camdessus recently visited Taiwan on invitation of the Ricci Institute of Taipei, he spoke about precisely that topic - cultural diversity and sustainable development.

Michel Camdessus is aware that Taiwan presently finds itself in a quite peculiar international position, but he believes that the island’s unresolved diplomatic status should not prevent the Taiwanese people from actively participating in international affairs. Business, public opinion, academia and non-governmental organizations (NGO) are not restricted by politics and should even play a more active role. The point is that we need to understand the importance of a diverse culture and the forces that it can mobilize. Taiwan could make good use of this precious cultural asset and serve as a model for other countries, he suggests.

In an exclusive interview with the CommonWealth Magazine, Camdessus shares his thoughts on the importance of cultural diversity in a globalizing world and how Taiwan could bring its own cultural diversity into play.

Q: Presently more and more people have begun to get an idea of sustainable development and gradually understand the severity of global warming. How are such issues linked to cultural diversity?

A: I am not a philosopher, just an economist, but I discovered that if you talk about the economy only with economists, you will not go very far. Each time I was visiting a country... in my capacity as the managing director of the IMF if I had, let’s say, two days to stay in the country, I tried to find one hour for discussions with spiritual leaders, whatever their religion, it does not matter. That was for a simple reason, because they were the only ones in the position to tell me the inner reality of the society, to tell me things that the economists will never mention or allude to, but finally are the key of understanding of another country. If you don’t have this inner understanding of a society, then you will never deal properly with its economic problems... I am not telling you that I have been always successful in dealing with the economies of the countries, but what I can tell you for sure is that I would have been much worse if I had not done that.

And I’ll give you an example, which is not that much of an Asian one. For instance, you know probably that in the beginning of the 1990s the IMF had to deal a lot with helping Russia and the former Soviet Union countries to join the market economy, and I was in charge of that in my capacity (as IMF managing director). And I visited the 16 countries of the former Soviet Union.

When visiting Moscow many times, I used to go to see Patriarch Alexy II, of the Orthodox Church, to discuss with him all the innermost, deepest problems of the Russian society after so many years, 70 years, of communism.

Of course you had a society, which had been tremendously hampered, victimized by materialism, dominated by materialism. Spiritual saints have survived in clandestinity, under tremendous hardship, but having dialogue with that man I discovered much more what was really the real soul of Russia, this relationship between orthodoxy and nationalism, for instance, in Russia, between nationalism and economic vision, the sense of sacrifice of the people of Russia, from where was it coming... In times of hardship of economic adjustment, to know what is the soul of a country is of course essential.

Q: Why is sustainable development so important in a globalized economy?

A: If, for instance, the Europeans are not able to show much more effective solidarity with the poorest of the world, particularly 16 miles from their coasts, in Africa, the entire world equilibrium is at stake. We will have two billion more people in the world in the next 30 years. Ninety percent will be born in developing countries. In Africa during the same period of time you will have one billion more people in extreme poverty conditions, 16 miles from the coast of Europe. Already you have every day hundreds if not thousands of people trying to embark in whatever navigation means to enter in clandestinity into Europe. What will we have within 20 years? You see, this poverty will be an extraordinary ground for terrorism, for violence, for illness, disease and so on. What will be the situation if we are not able, through solidarity and real partnership with Africa, to help them to change their economic conditions? Here you have the ethical value of solidarity being absolutely key for a sounder and more sustainable development.

And take the environment... the sustainability of the environment is a question of intergenerational solidarity. At this very moment we have used nature, we have used the earth, as if it was ours, to produce more, to consume more and forgetting about the next generation. Now we start discovering what the Aborigines had discovered since a long time ago, that we are borrowing the earth from our children...

Q: Why has cultural diversity been rather much overlooked in the past?

A: Let me be frank. I am a European. The way in which colonization went was a way of finally imposing the culture of the North on the South. Putting it very simply, it is a drama to see how Latin American cultures have been bulldozed by my friends from Spain and Portugal, the cultures in Africa have been bulldozed by the British and the French. As well, in China here, you could tell me who has been so ignorant of your own culture before, indeed, finally recognizing that you have here big treasures of humanity. So history is there to explain that and now possibly we are discovering how mistaken we were.

It is a real enrichment of the world to see Africa, to see Latin America, to see China, to see India rediscovering themselves... One of the reasons why I attach so much importance to the dialogue between cultures is because day one of the universal world civilization is only from the day when all the cultures recognize themselves as equal, recognize that they cannot exist if the culture of the other is not respected.

World civilization can emerge and we are possibly there. It is the challenge of our generation to substitute, to cut the old domination of the ones over the others with partnership among cultures. For us on the European side, we must be very humble – and we are not used to that – and recognize that when joining such a dialogue we must be particularly guarded and restrained, because those in front of us are people who have every reason to suspect us... And we must... try progressively to accept fully... that our own culture can only exist and be fruitful if we receive from the other cultures the vital elements they have and so far we have so frequently ignored...

Q: Is economic development causing this increased interest in cultural diversity?

A: Economic development, of course, is part of it, no doubt. But you have also the whole range of changes brought about by globalization. Globalization is by far not only an economic development. The fact that you have the Internet revolution, which makes the intellectual connections, the sharing of knowledge between all the countries, all the individuals of the world...

And of course that phenomenon is amplified by the economic power emergence in many parts of the world, which indeed contributes to accelerating the information revolution. You have a systemic phenomenon of which culture is a part. But the question is to know if this globalization phenomenon is a chance for the wealth of cultures of the world or a challenge for them.

It can be a challenge. In Europe, for instance, we are very concerned to see that the American cultural model will impose itself on the rest of the world. We used to say, ‘Is that a cultural model? Is that a culture? This kind of soap opera TV things and so on’. Of course, we despise that with the kind of intellectual arrogance that we have in Europe too much. But the fact is that there is here a threat for the cultures... because it’s a culture which is offered to the poorest. We have no alternative but to buy that. They have that in the TV. It’s a thing to listen and to see. So it’s a threat.

Yet at the same time, you have a chance, because the cultures of the world, including the cultures of the poorest and the smallest countries, have all an ambition to become universal. Possibly one of the key elements of culture is its vocation to universality. All cultures want to be shared, to be accepted or at least to be considered by the others. And here you have this globalization phenomenon, this Internet phenomenon offering to the smallest, to the most enormous cultures of the world, to be in a dialogue with all the others. You have here the ambivalence of this phenomenon, a challenge on one side, a risk on one side, and an extraordinary opportunity on the other. And it is the task of the people who are mindful in all parts of the world to reduce the risk and maximize the opportunities... stimulating diversity of the cultures and the conscience that the cultures have of themselves to contribute to a better world and a humanistic civilization to be built.

Q: What are your suggestions for small countries or cultures like Taiwan?

A: I have no lessons to give you, no suggestions. You must invent your own methods and your own way of expressing yourself. I have only one thing to suggest: not to be defensive, to be mindful that you have something unique to offer to the world. Each culture, each country must be mindful of its uniqueness and that this uniqueness is part of the wealth of the world. The world would be impoverished if the culture of Taiwan was not available for the others, was not vibrant, was not conscious of all that it can produce and offer to the others. And in the same breath you must accept dialogue with the others with no complex of inferiority. If the dialogue of the cultures is intrinsically a dialogue of equals... here is where we have a paradigm change of major importance...

Of course, we have the impression that the American culture dominates the world. No, not at all. The American culture only exists because it has been enriched by many other countries... Look at Latin America... The novels which are most successful in America are very frequently Latin American novels. The language, Spanish, is in the process of becoming the most important language in North America... Latin American migrants to the United States, they occupy a growing place not only for literature, but for music, for arts in the living culture of North America...

If you multiply what can be between Europe and Asia, between Asia and Africa, Africa and Europe, all these intercultural exchanges, you arrive at a very different vision of the world – indeed, most promising. But implying for all the actors the respect for the culture of the other, the knowledge that the culture can survive only through this dialogue and that the sustainability of the economies relies deeply on this diversity of culture and dialogue – this is the whole story.

But here in Taiwan you are much more prepared for that than you have the impression to be. You are already present in the rest of the world much more than other countries are. As you have been confronted with tremendous challenges for your own survival due to what your political history has been, you are possibly more prepared than other countries, less intimidated than other countries by this challenge of cultural diversity and cultural dialogue...

I have been fortunate to be in charge of an international institution for 13 years... When you are there, working with more than 190 countries in the world you cannot but be impressed by the fact that the cultural diversity, the cultural ways of the world is absolutely, essentially basic to solve the trouble of the world.

For me it was a special challenge, because the International Monetary Fund as the other agencies of the U.N. system are specialized agencies. On the monetary front you deal with monetary issues, period. Don’t be concerned about culture, don’t be concerned about health, don’t be concerned about war or peace – (just) monetary issues. All the others are in this specialized business.

I came to the conclusion that the key weakness of the U.N. system is the segmentation of the system. I came to the conclusion that you cannot deal properly with health if you don’t know something about the culture of the people. You cannot deal properly with peace and war if you don’t know a lot about the economies of the world, and you cannot deal properly with monetary issues if you are not able to bring together the cultural dimension of the problem, and the economic and the monetary.

What makes sustainability sustainable, pardon me for saying that, is cultural diversity, is a few ethical principles, and finally the wealth of spirituality of all the countries in the world. This is the connection between cultural aspects and economic, social sustainability which is key for the civilization of the future.

If we come back to economic sustainability, then you will see that the three dimensions of sustainable development – which is growth, but high-quality growth, which is social cohesion, which is long-term environmental sustainability – behind these three components of sustainable development you have cultural, ethical and spiritual values. Let’s take social cohesion, well if you don’t promote the value of solidarity you will never actually (have) social cohesion. This is true at the level of a given city or a country, but it is even more true at the worldwide level.

Transcribed by Susanne Ganz

Chinese Version: 米謝.康德緒:多元文化—台灣永續的寶藏