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Globalization vs. Decentralization

April 29, 2009


Unless you have been completely cut off from the news the past few days, you are aware of the growing concern of swine flu pandemic. For years, the global health community has pointed to avian flu as the likely culprit that would spark the next pandemic. Researchers selected avian flu because many believe that the 1918 flu pandemic (commonly referred to as the Spanish flu) was an avian version of the H1N1 virus. The 1918 influenza pandemic spread to nearly every part of the world. It was caused by an unusually and deadly of the Influenza A virus of subtype H1N1, which can be found in humans, birds, and/or pigs. Historical and epidemiological data are inadequate to identify the geographic origin of the virus, but it certainly was not from Spain. Most of its victims were healthy young adults. Normally, influenza outbreaks affect juvenile, elderly, or otherwise weakened patients. The pandemic lasted from March 1918 to June 1920 and left between 20 and 100 million people dead worldwide. To put it more graphically, it killed the equivalent of one third of the Europe’s population and affected up to half the world’s population at the time.


Even though this current outbreak of swine flu is in its beginning stages, the World Health Organization (WHO) has already declared that it is too late to contain it. As a result, WHO raised its alertness from level 3 to level 4 worldwide (there six levels in total). As of this writing, cases have been reported in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, Scotland, France, Spain, Israel, and New Zealand. Interestingly, some of the technology that was developed and used in Asia as a result of the 2002-03 SARS scare, is also being put to good use today. Passengers at some air terminals are being screened for elevated temperatures and those with fevers are not permitted to travel. Anyone who doubts that we live in a globalized world should have those doubts erased as result of this latest concern. Health concerns can no longer be separated from economic concerns [“Outbreak Threatens Global Recovery,” by Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, 28 April 2009]. Faiola writes:

“The swine flu outbreak is compounding the ailments of the global economy just as it is starting to stabilize, darkening the outlook for everything from tourism to world trade, particularly in the United States and Mexico. In recent weeks, economic data suggested a bottoming-out of the global financial crisis. But economists yesterday were forced to digest worst-case scenarios in which a recession that is already the deepest since World War II could become two or three times as painful. That would be the consequence of a full-blown flu pandemic. But even if the outbreak were to remain relatively contained, economists warned of a new round of woes. … A 2006 report from the Congressional Budget Office estimated a pandemic, depending on its severity, could cost the United States between 1 percent to 4.1 percent of annual economic output. Given that the U.S. economy is expected to shrink by 2.8 percent this year, a pandemic could lead to a contraction of 3.9 percent to 6.9 percent as consumer demand and worker productivity suffer further.”

New York Times‘ op-ed columnist David Brooks reminds us that global issues require global solutions, but wonders if that means establishing more global organizations [“Globalization goes Viral,” 27 April 2009]. He notes that today “we don’t face a single concentrated threat”; rather we “face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu.”


Brooks believes that the consequences of these threats are magnified by the “quickening pace of globalization.” Because globalization fosters the movement of people, resources, and capital a crisis in one location sends out shockwaves throughout the system. My colleague Tom Barnett calls such a crisis a system perturbation. Brooks notes that handled inappropriately these system perturbations “have the potential to hit nearly everywhere at once. They can wreck the key nodes of complex international systems.” He then asks a series of trillion dollar questions: “So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?” One would logically think that global challenges require global responses; but, the world is not always a logical place. Brooks notes that a good case can be made for global responses. He writes:

“A couple of years ago, G. John Ikenberry of Princeton wrote a superb paper making the case for the centralized response. He argued that America should help build a series of multinational institutions to address global problems. The great powers should construct an ‘infrastructure of international cooperation … creating shared capacities to respond to a wide variety of contingencies.’ If you apply that logic to the swine flu, you could say that the world should beef up the World Health Organization to give it the power to analyze the spread of the disease, decide when and where quarantines are necessary and organize a single global response. If we had a body like that, we wouldn’t be seeing the sort of frictions that are emerging from today’s decentralized approach. Europe has offended the U.S. by warning its citizens not to travel across the Atlantic. Ukraine is restricting pork imports. Europe could horde flu vaccines, leaving the U.S., which has only one manufacturing plant, high and dry. Fear of a pandemic could lead to a restrictionist race, as nations compete to curtail movement and build walls.”

Brooks reports, however, that political leaders around the globe continue to eschew global mechanisms and are placing their bets on decentralized responses. Why? One reason, he notes, is speed. Even the best organized international institution operates slowly, even in circumstances that require speed. A second reason is that few, if any, community is willing to give up control of local assets that could help elsewhere but may be needed by those who actually paid for them. Finally, decentralized responses have somehow seemed to work in the past. Somehow local and national responses muddle through, find complementary approaches, and the crisis eventually ends. As Brooks concludes, “the decentralized approach has coped reasonably well with uncertainty.” The question remains as to whether the decentralized approach will continue to work as the world continues to become more globalized. Brooks makes the case that in a globalized world decentralization actually makes more sense than it did in the past not less. Why? The simple answer is connectivity. Brooks concludes:

“It is clear from the response, so far, that there is an informal network of scientists who have met over the years and come to certain shared understandings about things like quarantining and rates of infection. It is also clear that there is a ton they don’t understand. A single global response would produce a uniform approach. A decentralized response fosters experimentation. The bottom line is that the swine flu crisis is two emergent problems piled on top of one another. At bottom, there is the dynamic network of the outbreak. It is fueled by complex feedback loops consisting of the virus itself, human mobility to spread it and environmental factors to make it potent. On top, there is the psychology of fear caused by the disease. It emerges from rumors, news reports, Tweets and expert warnings. The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself. Swine flu isn’t only a health emergency. It’s a test for how we’re going to organize the 21st century. Subsidiarity works best.”

Even if one agrees with Brooks (and living in a networked world it’s hard to disagree with his logic), does that mean that there is no need for international organizations? Of course not. Even the most decentralized system in the world, the Internet, has international bodies that get together to ensure that the system is working correctly. The Center for Disease Control “works with the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which coordinates efforts among health officials around the globe” [“Diseases Travel Fast, but So Do Tools to Fight Them,” by Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, Washington Post, 29 April 2009]. Coordination and cooperation are the proper roles that international organizations ought to play. There is need for both flexibility and standardization; for speed of action and deliberative processes. We need to make our international organizations better but we shouldn’t scrap them altogether.

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