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Amidst all the wars, violence, natural catastrophes and personal tragedies that we are surrounded with, pluralistic notions of identity founded on a harmonious blend of universal values with local diversity hold out hopes of a better world.

Individual identities are defined by location, work, ethnicity, language and religion. These attributes may be supplemented by the notion of citizenship and the nation state. As the contacts with other people and countries expand through commerce, travel and cultural exchanges, individual identities evolve and become more complex. With the intensification of globalization through ever more rapid expansion of trade, foreign investment, flows of capital and technology and information, and travel and migration, identities are further shaped by new influences. This applies especially to the middle classes and the youth in developing countries.

There are many ways in which forces associated with globalization impact on our work, life styles, well-being and values. We mention here five of the most prominent influences. First there is the ubiquitous presence of imported goods and services that are consumed by all social groups. The emerging middle classes in particular seek to imitate the consumption patterns of the rich countries whether these be luxury cars, beauty products, branded handbags or the latest fashion clothes. They thus tend to identify themselves with the more affluent groups in the world.

Then there is the growing influence of new technologies for social interaction that affect our lives in myriad ways. These technologies include mass media, e-mails, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Iphone and Ipad. They are especially popular among the younger educated groups. Their common feature is that they make geographical space irrelevant and enable people to interact on issues of common interest nationally and globally. They have been used as an instrument for spreading hatred, intolerance and violence as also for promoting justice, peace and freedom.

Their power for mobilization has been demonstrated recently by the spread of insurgencies in the Arab world from Tunisia to Syria and in recent weeks by the even more rapid spread of the movements Indignados and Occupy Wall Street across the world. It is clear that we have not seen the last of such protest movements. From the perspective of identity, their significance lies in expanding the horizons of its participants beyond the local and the national to the global. They have also demonstrated the power and universal appeal of the ideals of freedom, social justice and democracy for which people have been prepared to lay down their lives.

Travel and migration are yet another way that globalization affects our identities. Travel exposes ever increasing numbers of persons to different people, cultures and ways of life. As with new technologies, travel broadens people’s horizons. This process is taken one step further with migration where migrants learn to live, work and interact with people of different nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, values and culture. While there is an increasing tendency among migrants to seek to live among their own diaspora communities and to reproduce their former ways of life, there is a limit to which the pervasive influences of the adopted country can be shut off. This is especially likely to be the case with the younger generation who go to schools and are exposed to the full range of influences of the country of migration. There are numerous and subtle ways in which living in a foreign country affects the world- view of the migrants and thus their sense of identity. This does not mean that they necessarily discard their previous identities. It is more a question of adding new layers to the established patterns.

Identity for scores of millions of people around the world is further affected by the cult of celebrity. Prominent personalities in the field of entertainment, sports, religion and even politics and business, attract millions of followers world wide. Their supporters treat them as role models and seek to emulate their life styles, patterns of behavior and values. This in turn has an inevitable impact on various aspects of the identities of millions of fans worldwide.

Finally, the work of the development, human rights and humanitarian agencies, whether operating at the national, regional or global levels, has a profound even if unperceived impact on our world views and values. Although not a direct product of globalization, there is no doubt that their spread, reach and effectiveness have benefited from globalization. United Nations and its agencies, other multilateral organizations and numerous civil society agencies working at global, regional and national levels present the benign face of globalization. UN agencies such as UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP and UNHC for Human Rights have worked for human well-being and rights around the world. Likewise, other multilateral agencies such as Red Cross, WWF and IUCN are doing good work in such diverse areas as emergencies and conservation.

There are also numerous civil society organizations such as Oxfam, Medicines Sans Frontier, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Organization Against Torture, Grameen Bank, SEWA and the Green Belt Movement, that have struggled for decent living standards, human rights and social justice. These organizations have shown by their work the capacity of human institutions to expand their moral horizons to the planetary level to address the needs of the downtrodden, exploited, oppressed and the destitute. Once again they alter our perceptions of identities by breaking barriers segmenting fellow beings into exclusive and often antagonistic categories based on race, ethnicity, nationality, ideology, religion and culture.

The above examples illustrate just a few of the many ways in which identities are shaped by the forces of globalization. They affect various aspects of our identities. We focus here on the crucial dimension of values. Globalization affects our value systems in diverse and contradictory ways. Some elements of globalization reinforce our greed for more material products. They encourage materialism, indulgence, selfishness, search for wealth in illicit ways and proclivity for instant gratification. Globalization also stimulates aspirations for achievement, fame and glory. It opens up new opportunities for learning and excelling at the world level.

As noted above, it can also reinforce our nobler qualities by strengthening multilateral and civil society organizations working for better living standards, human rights, humanitarian relief and conservation. By breaking geographical barriers, it enables people to overcome prejudices and biases against the ‘outsider’ and the ‘foreigner’. Throughout history, local tribes and communities have treated outsiders as enemies and waged war against them. Prejudices based on differences of race, ethnicity, language, religion and culture are still pervasive and continue to colour our perception of the ‘others’.

At their best, global institutions can promote perceptions of a common humanity where all individuals are entitled to the full range of political, economic and social rights as enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the various conventions on human rights, including those on the rights of women, children, indigenous people and migrants. They can also encourage the cultivation of such universal values as compassion, tolerance, non-violence and reverence for nature and respect for other species.

Many of us have lived this trajectory from the village to the global. A good friend whom I shall call Baldev illustrates well how identity has changed in the age of globalization. Born in a village in Kenya, Baldev went to school in Nairobi and later studied agricultural sciences in the UK and the USA. He worked as a researcher in various agricultural institutes in East African countries. He specialized in improving crops and production technologies on small subsistence farms to raise the productivity and incomes of poor peasant farmers. Later he held a number of posts in various international agricultural research institutes. This enabled him to meet marginal farmers and share croppers in several developing countries. Baldev is now retired and divides his time between Europe and Kenya.

Baldev’s identity as a child and a school boy was defined by his community, language, religion and culture. His studies abroad and professional work opened a whole new world for him. It broke all geographical barriers and brought him in contact with people of different cultures, languages, races, nationalities and ideologies. His work led him to empathize with the exploited and the downtrodden. All these experiences had an enduring impact on his identity. He gradually began to develop a more universalistic vision of identity formed around some core human values. But here is the interesting part. These new elements of identity never replaced the older ones but rather added new layers in a harmonious pattern.

Baldev has taken to new technologies with vengeance. Apart from creating his own website, Facebook and blog accounts, he is an active participant in several internet networks linking the East African Asian diaspora communities. While his travel and work in different parts of the world have led him to discard his earlier prejudices and biases against other cultures, religions and races, it has also strengthened the finer elements of his earlier identity. This is indeed the best outcome for identity in the age of globalization. Amidst all the wars, violence, natural catastrophes and personal tragedies that we are surrounded with, such pluralistic notions of identity founded as they are on a harmonious blend of universal values with local diversity, hold out hopes of a better world.


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* Dharam Ghai is a former Director, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, ILO World Employment Programme Research and of Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi. He is currently doing research on children in Africa. Email: [email protected].
* This article was first published in a special issue of Awaaz magazine.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.