The future of the world – as seen from an airport

by Hicham Yezza Airports are salty wounds, full of tight air and crimson stale tears and often, when sitting rigidly on an Africa-to- Europe flight, I can feel the passengers are wounds inside wounds: bundles of dry nerves in a bath of dry uncertainty. Later on, from up in the sky, Heathrow airport will seem […]

Features - Posted on Thursday, May 29, 2008 14:55 - 2 Comments

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by Hicham Yezza

Airports are salty wounds, full of tight air and crimson stale tears and often, when sitting rigidly on an Africa-to- Europe flight, I can feel the passengers are wounds inside wounds: bundles of dry nerves in a bath of dry uncertainty.

Later on, from up in the sky, Heathrow airport will seem an obstinate lump of concrete and steel, a formidable excrescence: unwelcoming and even irritated at the arrival of yet another wave of “them”. Inside the austere hall of immigration control of Terminal 2, arriving passengers are separated into two groups, a fluid small queue at the far end for the citizens of the free world and another much bigger section for the rest: the people at the edge. And so they quietly join the human snake locked in a lengthy slow-moving march towards the gates of deliverance. You want to learn about social science? About global politics in the twenty-first century? About the “human predicament”? About the “end of history”?

Well: forget your Ivy league PhDs and your LSE Masters. Skip over your Foreign Affairs subscription and your well-meaning punctual attendance at literary festivals and come spend a day at the arrival gates of Heathrow airport. Try it, sit there and watch humanity in all its countless dimensions. Watch the sweaty frowns, the hopeful sighs, the expectant silences, the occasional glances towards the other world at the far end, that of the lucky ones hurrying past impatiently, showing their passports fleetingly to the smiling official like they were glorified bus passes. And who can blame them? Isn’t that what passports are meant to be? As clichés go ‘The World is a Global Village’ has at least the merit of being nearly true. Indeed, if you chose carefully where your world started and where it ended. If you picked a world that contained the good half of the Northern Hemisphere as well as some appropriate outposts, Australia and the Falklands for example. Then that world would, indeed, be one of breathlessly instant communication, dizzyingly cheap frictionless travel and where you would find an increasingly eclectic yet homogenous cultural diet of MTV-speak and industrialscale spiritual angst. That world would be a global village ….

I’m reminded of a moment last summer, as I sat on the terrace of my family home in a sun-drenched Algiers suburb, fifty pages into another half-hearted attempt to complete War and Peace. I wondered about how things would have turned out had two hundred thousand or so qualified engineers, researchers, professors and professionals not fled my country over the past twenty years. Would a North African Silicon Valley have emerged? Perhaps on the site of a dormant coastal village? A place buzzing with that most potent of mixes: blazing talent and raw ambition? Would that have helped make the planet a teeny bit fairer? Or at least less farcical than it is now? This thought-experiment is set to remain just that: an exercise in outlandish speculation. Half a century after the last wave of liberation movements, the Third World is still haemorrhaging crucial brain-power and the First World is still hungrily (yet not that gratefully) sucking it out. No one seems able or willing to stop this demonic one-way phenomena and the political bankruptcy of the elites in most African, Asian and Latin American countries, crippled by incompetence, mismanagement and good old fashioned greed, has certainly not helped.

At the airport, so many different faces have the same quiet fierceness about them: The Egyptian petroleum engineer with his beautiful daughter beside him singing to herself, oblivious to the life-changing episode she is partaking in, the Sri-Lankan computer scientist, with his neat short hair and his serious gaze, absentmindedly inspecting his knuckles, the Malaysian physicist, with his short-sleeved shirt and worried brows. All of them stand in line waiting, locked between the twin poles of the local oppression back home (whether political, social or economical) and the siren calls of overseas prosperity. The simple truth is that most of the time, job migration is not about choosing a different life: It’s about choosing life. Very often nowadays, photogenic experts line up at TV shows to proclaim the end of borders, the abolition of the nation-state and the brand new age of the international continuum. This humanist fantasy, to which even cynics subscribe tearfully now and then (when watching the football world cup final, for instance) is touching and commendable but a fantasy nonetheless. It may be passably comprehensible to a group of bohemian backpackers indulging in cheerful banter (in Esperanto?) in a Jazz-café on the French-Belgian border but has very little resonance for a destitute family in a Palestinian village for whom leaving their very house is too forbiddingly risky an enterprise.

Is a continuous unidirectional migration flow sustainable forever? Of course not. In fact, several patterns are already emerging: the service sector’s drive towards overseas outsourcing will initially increase, but eventually slow down as the gap in labour costs between the west and the rest closes up. Geography will continue its path towards irrelevance as the location of businesses, once mainly dictated by their physical proximity to suppliers and customers, is now based more on rental cost considerations. Time for a prediction: Over the next hundred years, things are set to proceed along one of two distinct tracks, and it’s all depending on our actions globally as a species.

The first avenue, unfortunately appearing to be the most likely, is for the increased worldwide competitiveness over scarcer resources to lead to an ever shrinking island of the prosperous few in the midst of the ever widening circle of the forgotten many. The world would become a global-scale version of a medieval kingdom. The second option, achievable but requiring altruism of which we haven’t shown ourselves capable yet, is for the economic system to move from its currently lop-sided shape to a stable and efficient set of mechanisms covering the entirety of the globe, rather than the current inconsistent pattern of halfmeasures and selectively-adhered-to international trade laws that we have now. As to what this implies for worker migration, it simply means that we should strive for a world where workers are able to move freely around the globe according to their own preferences and skills but – and this is the part that most miss or choose to ignore – that workers are not under undue pressure (whether internal or external) to adopt a particular choice. In other words, a doctor emigrating from Ethiopia to the US is not a glorious symbol of an idealised free movement of people if her choice to emigrate was the result of an absence of choice.

The freedom and ability to stay are as important as the freedom and ability to move and to go away. Democratic reform towards freer societies (but without the ugly interventionist connotations the word has been cloaked in by the media) is hence a crucial step towards genuine freedom of movement for people in the third world. So. What are we to do? Well, for a start, the third world economic and intellectual apparatus should be given a chance to grow organically. The brain drain has to stop and the sooner the better. Of course this is not going to be painless for the Euro-American (and other developed) economies but it would be wise and it would be fair. Indeed, a decreased migration of skilled workers would lead to more vibrant home economies and eventually to a significant increase in living standards in their countries. The closing gap in average employee remunerations between the west and the rest will itself slow down the migration cycle even further and cement a stable international job markets equilibrium. Those in the developed West who are supporting actions towards a fairer world should understand very clearly that change will come at a price: principally, a reduced level of their own affluence and material wealth – a price too many in the west have decided they can’t afford to pay. But considering the long term consequences of our current global levels of production and consumption, they will have to face the realisation that it’s a price they certainly cannot afford not to.

At the Heathrow Immigration desk a friend of mine was once asked by a benign-looking immigration official what her intentions were after finishing her Politics degree in Britain. “I will possibly do a postgraduate course” she replied neutrally and then, feebly “possibly look for a job here”. The immigration officer looked up for a few very heavy milliseconds and then stoically resumed his scribbling. He has seen her before, a trillion times, with a different name, colour and nationality but with that same weary stare and that same fire at the back of the eyes. She was allowed through. The world will grow as a whole or it won’t grow at all.

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Jeni Williams
May 30, 2008 16:15

Excellent article – just what I need for my students, basking in uncritical acceptance of the global village’, to point out the enormous cost of freedom for a favoured few.

I was already horrified to learn of your detention. Reading this I am still more horrified that you should be facing deportation. I hope against every hope in the world that this will not happen and that some kind of sanity will prevail.

Wishing you all the good of the world

Steve Huckle
Jun 9, 2008 9:30

“Wishing you all the good of the world” seems like a curse, given what’s happened. But then I suppose it depends which part of the world you belong; lets pray the authorities decide Hezzam belongs to the haves, and not the have nots.

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