Vulnerability and Violence: The Impact of Globalization

Vulnerability and Violence: The Impact of Globalization

by Peadar Kirby


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Vulnerability and Violence: The Impact of Globalization by Peadar Kirby

'Vulnerability' is now a key term in globalisation studies. It is used to describe how globalisation impacts on individual security, local communities and even global flows of trade, finance and investment. Yet there has been little attempt to interrogate the term and what it is trying to express about globalisation.

Peadar Kirby examines what is really meant by 'vulnerability' and links it to new forms of violence that have resulted from decreased security and social cohesion. He argues that vulnerability and violence are characteristic features of a new world order dominated by neoliberal globalisation. Illustrating his argument with a wealth of examples taken from all over the world — from the sudden collapse of the middle class in Argentina to increased levels of poverty internationally — he offers a robust theoretical grounding that will be of use to anyone studying vulnerability and violence and their relation to contemporary globalisation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745322872
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 02/13/2006
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Paedar Kirby is a senior lecturer in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University where he lectures on International Relations and Globalisation. He was previously a journalist at the Irish Times covering Latin American issues. He is the author of Reinventing Ireland (Pluto Press, 2002).

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Globalisation, Vulnerability and Violence

While vulnerability, uncertainty and insecurity in the life of people are not new, what is new is that their causes and manifestations have multiplied and changed profoundly over the last decade. Examples include civil strife and the proliferation of conflicts, growing inequalities within and among countries further accentuated by globalization, mixed outcomes of poverty reduction efforts, increased mobility of populations and changes in family structures. (UN, 2003: 2)

Unusually for an academic term, 'globalisation' has become a field not just of intellectual debate but of political battle. As the twenty-first century opened, it became commonplace for most international meetings of political or economic leaders to attract groups of often very colourful protesters, labelled by the media as being 'anti-globalisation'. Indeed, these protesters can take credit for catapulting to the attention of the general public such organisations as the G-8, the World Economic Forum at Davos, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation – up to then rather secretive elite organisations to which few people paid much attention, even though their decisions often had major consequences on the lives of all our societies. Suddenly these organisations were mounting rearguard PR campaigns to try to counteract the negative prime-time media focus on them, and they took to meeting in obscure places (a resort in the Canadian Rockies, the Gulf state of Qatar) to be able to carry on their business. The mobilising power of this relatively new social scientific concept of globalisation is all the more surprising in that some academics still dispute whether it actually exists, claiming it to be a 'myth' (Hirst and Thompson, 1999).

In using the word 'myth' to describe globalisation these 'sceptics', as they are called, may unwittingly be on to something. While they use the team to mean an untruth, it may be more positively understood as meaning the foundational story of a culture or civilisation which explains fundamental natural or social phenomena and is usually invested with a deeper religious or transcendent significance. Increasingly the term 'globalisation' and its story of deeper flows of investment, trade and information uniting the fates of distant peoples around the world is functioning as the myth of today's economic and political elites. Just as religious leaders down the ages used myths to persuade people that they had no choice but to accept what the leaders were telling them and insisted that it would bring them happiness, so too our leaders promote globalisation as something that offers us all the prospect of a better life, warning us that to resist or oppose it invites disaster. Yet, as is clear from the size, persistence and worldwide resonance of the 'anti-globalisation' protesters, this particular myth is being increasingly challenged even if no alternative way of organising the world's economy is yet clearly evident.

The emergence of globalisation as a field of battle has therefore served to expose an increasingly interested and concerned public to what Held and McGrew have called 'some of the most fundamental issues of our time', relating to 'the organization of human affairs and the trajectory of global social change' (Held and McGrew, 2002: 118). Among these, perhaps the most fundamental issue of all concerns the impact of globalisation on our individual and social well-being. Is globalisation really making us all better off or are some reaping most of the benefits while most of us are worse off, either absolutely or relatively? Put simply, is globalisation increasing poverty and inequality or is it reducing them? These are the sorts of concerns that enrage enough people to fuel a wave of global activism that has surprised politicians and commentators alike, forcing reconsideration of the accepted wisdom that politics interests people less and less, especially the younger generation. Finding answers to these questions is therefore very important, either to confirm the argument of pro-globalisers that what we need to help eliminate poverty is a deepening of globalisation, or to lend support to the demands by 'anti-globalisers' for more public regulation of global markets to help ensure most of the world's people reap more of the benefits. Yet, surprisingly, answers are not easily come by; fierce debates rage among academics about how globalisation is impacting on the poor, with diametrically different conclusions being reached. World Bank researcher Martin Ravallion reports different surveys concluding that poverty fell sharply in the 1990s, that it fell modestly, or that it rose, and ones that find inequality has risen while others find it has fallen. As he puts it: 'Both sides in the debate have sought support from "hard" data on what is happening to poverty and inequality in the world. A "numbers debate" has developed, underlying the more high-profile protests and debates on globalization' (Ravallion, 2003: 739). What we have are two opposing camps talking past one another, due often to differences in how key concepts are defined or in methods of data collection and analysis, with no resolution or consensus in sight.

The purpose of this book is to help break this logjam. Its writing is motivated by the conviction that both sides of the argument are, to some extent, correct in the claims they are making about globalisation – where it results in economic growth it does help reduce some kinds of poverty though the evidence shows that globalisation does not necessarily result in sustainable growth – but that they are failing to identify the central distinctive feature that characterises the impact of globalisation on our lives and our societies. It could be said that they are locked into a conceptual vocabulary that obscures rather than elucidates the core issues at stake. In other words, they are failing to probe deeply enough, or to fashion categories that adequately capture what is happening in this period of intense economic, social, cultural and political change. As expressed in the epigraph to this chapter, the term 'vulnerability' may be a much more appropriate category to capture the distinctive ways in which the economic, social, political, cultural and environmental changes associated with the term 'globalisation' are impacting on all of us, especially the poor, while the term 'violence' constitutes both a cause of vulnerability and also an expression of it. This book argues that 'vulnerability' expresses much more adequately the novel and multifaceted features of the impact of globalisation on our personal and social lives than do concepts like 'poverty', 'inequality', 'risk' or 'insecurity', concepts that up to now have dominated academic discussion of that impact. While analyses of globalisation (especially by intergovernmental organisations like the World Bank and various UN bodies) widely refer to many ways in which globalisation is making more vulnerable such features of our social world as national economies, social groups, fragile ecosystems, political systems or cultures, this book is the first to focus attention on the concept of vulnerability itself, a concept that is so widely used but rarely interrogated. As the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs recognised in its Report on the World Social Situation in 2003, since the mid 1990s reference has increasingly been made to the notion of vulnerability in the context of social policy. However, it adds that 'use of the words "vulnerability" and "vulnerable" has been quite loose in policy contexts and has entailed neither the theoretical rigour nor the degree of elaboration that one finds in analytical works' (UN, 2003: 14). Through examining the ways in which the concept is used to describe the impact of globalisation and through situating the concept in social theory, this book hopes to offer such theoretical rigour and to illustrate its practical usefulness. It will identify the central features that make it such a rich concept and one uniquely able to express how today's dominant form of globalisation is changing all our lives. In analysing and describing vulnerability, the book again and again shows how it is linked to violence and to social and environmental destruction.

Following this introduction, the present chapter undertakes three tasks. The first is to assemble evidence to support the claim that the term vulnerability is being widely used in the literature on globalisation. The various uses identified will be analysed to flesh out what is being meant by the term and to offer a definition. This discussion will introduce the theme of violence as an essential feature of vulnerability in today's world. Having identified the book's core concepts, the second task of this chapter is to distinguish them from other concepts widely used to analyse the social impact of globalisation, especially those mentioned above – poverty/inequality, risk and insecurity. This discussion will help clarify why vulnerability is a more adequate concept to capture the complex and multifaceted impact of globalisation. Finally, the chapter outlines the rest of the book, using the metaphor of mapping globalisation to express how this work is seeking to describe the contours and delineate the boundaries of the sort of world being fashioned by the forces we label globalisation.


Use of the concept of vulnerability in international relations discourse can be traced to the 1970s (see Box 1.1) but, since the early 1990s, it has come to be widely used by some leading intergovernmental organisations to characterise, define and measure aspects of globalisation's impact on a range of areas relating to the well-being of society. These include economic vulnerability, social vulnerability, financial vulnerability and environmental vulnerability. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs offers the following definition:

In essence, vulnerability can be seen as a state of high exposure to certain risks and uncertainties, in combination with a reduced ability to protect or defend oneself against those risks and uncertainties and cope with their negative consequences. It exists at all levels and dimensions of society and forms an integral part of the human condition, affecting both individuals and society as a whole. (UN, 2003: 14)

It goes on in its 2003 report to identify groups that are especially vulnerable such as the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, migrants and indigenous peoples, and specifies that vulnerability is not limited to the poor but can affect any group in society as 'all groups face vulnerabilities that are largely the outcome of economic, social and cultural barriers that restrict opportunities for, and impede the social integration/participation of the groups' (2003: 15). Furthermore, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs echoes the views of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in identifying globalisation as an important source of growing vulnerability. In its 1999 Human Development Report on the subject of globalisation, the UNDP states that 'people everywhere are more vulnerable':

Changing labour markets are making people insecure in their jobs and livelihoods. The erosion of the welfare state removes safety nets. And the financial crisis is now a social crisis. All this is happening as globalization erodes the fiscal base of countries, particularly developing countries, shrinking the public resources and institutions to protect people. (UNDP, 1999: 90)

The World Bank, on the other hand, discusses vulnerability in relation to the poor only. In its keynote study of poverty, the 2000-01 World Development Report entitled 'Attacking Poverty', the World Bank sees vulnerability as a dimension of poverty, alongside other dimensions such as income poverty, health and education, voicelessness and powerlessness. 'In the dimensions of income and health, vulnerability is the risk that a household or individual will experience an episode of income or health poverty over time. But vulnerability also means the probability of being exposed to a number of other risks (violence, crime, natural disasters, being pulled out of school)' (World Bank, 2000: 19). The report sees vulnerability as a dynamic concept, capturing the ways in which people move into and out of poverty over time, though it acknowledges that measuring it is especially difficult as it would require a continuous monitoring of the same households over a period, necessitating a range of data not currently available through the household surveys of income or expenditure that provide the basis for measuring poverty today. However, the Bank has included a table entitled 'Assessing vulnerability' in its annual World Development Indicators publication. This is made up of indicators such as the percentage of employment that is in the informal sector, the percentage of children aged 10-14 in the labour force, female-headed households as a percentage of total households, percentages of the labour force and of the population who make pension contributions, and private health expenditure as a percentage of total health expenditure. These measure risks faced by households of falling into poverty (World Bank, 2005: Table 2.8). This illustrates, therefore, that vulnerability is primarily seen by the World Bank as the risk some sectors of the population face of falling into income poverty.

Economic vulnerability has been developed as a concept to help identify those states most vulnerable in a globalised economy. The idea of measuring the extent and dimensions of economic vulnerability first arose in the early 1990s when UNCTAD carried out a study on the feasibility of constructing an index of vulnerability. The idea was afterwards taken up by the UN Economic and Social Council and in 2000 the first Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) was drawn up with a composite indicator based on five components, reflecting three dimensions of countries' economic vulnerability: firstly, the magnitude of external shocks beyond domestic control measured through indicators of the instability of agricultural production and the instability of exports of goods and services; secondly, the exposure of the economy to these shocks measured through the share of manufacturing and modern services in GDP, and merchandise export concentration; and finally, the structural handicaps explaining the country's high exposure measured through population size. Tuvalu was top of the 2003 EVI followed by Kiribati, Brunei Darussalam, Afghanistan, Mongolia and Cambodia (ESCAP, 2003). A similar index is the Commonwealth Vulnerability Index which uses a sample of 111 developing countries to measure two aspects of vulnerability: firstly, the impact of external shocks over which the country affected has little or no control and, secondly, the resilience of a country to withstand and recover from such shocks. The index is compiled from the three most significant indicators of countries' income volatility, namely: lack of economic diversification, export dependence and the impact of natural disasters. Of the 28 most vulnerable countries on this index, 26 are small states, 18 of them islands. Lesotho and Mauritania are the only exceptions.

For the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the currency crises in Mexico, East Asia, Russia and Brazil in the 1990s have led them to develop vulnerability indicators identifying which countries are vulnerable to such financial crises and to what extent. The Fund states that 'timely and detailed data on international reserves, external debt, and capital flows strengthen the ability to detect vulnerabilities, giving policy makers enough time to put remedial measures in place' (IMF, 2003). Four groups of indicators are monitored by the IMF to identify vulnerability. First are indicators of external and domestic debt, with special attention to countries' ability to pay back their debts, such as the ratios of external debt to exports and to GDP and, where public sector borrowing is significant, the ratio of tax revenues to debt. The second set of indicators relates to reserves and is particularly important for those countries with significant but uncertain access to capital markets. Thirdly, there are what the IMF calls 'financial soundness indicators', used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of countries' financial sectors, including the profitability and liquidity of financial institutions and the pace and quality of credit growth. These are used to assess sensitivity to market risk such as changes in interest and exchange rates. Finally, the Fund has a set of corporate sector indicators that trace the exposure of companies to foreign exchange and interest rate exposure. These vulnerability assessments are now incorporated into the IMF's consultations with its member countries and, based on these data, the IMF produces Early Warning System (EWS) models to estimate the likelihood of currency crises.


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Copyright © 2006 Peadar Kirby.
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Table of Contents

1. Globalisation, Vulnerability and Violence
Section I: Description
2. Risk's New Riskiness
3. Coping with Risk
Section II: Diagnosis
4. The Political Economy of Globalisation
5. Globalisation's Cultural Worlds
Section III: Interrogation
6. Society and Market
7. The Individual and Society (written with Toni Ryan)
Section IV: Remedies
8. 'So What Should We Do?'
9. Contesting Globalisation

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