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The rise of localism: them and us could threaten your job

June 2, 2014

Recent elections for the European Parliament are just one example of the push-back on globalization and the uncertainties it creates. Unwilling to accept or threatened by change, many people seek the status-quo, even hungering for a by-gone ‘golden age’ lodged in their imagination. This is in no way new; throughout the Middle Ages, populations in Western Europe looked backwards and their aim was to restore the past.  It was only as a result of the ‘Age of Discovery’ in the 16th century that minds shifted, appreciating that a larger world perhaps offered potential for a new era of invention and prosperity.

Populists exploit these sentiments and fears, sometimes romantically and in other cases with extreme and destructive views. In either case, the threat to overall human welfare is significant, whether in terms of economic wealth or in terms of peace and harmony. Increasingly, we see the emergence of a ‘them and us’ world, with those who feel threatened and excluded from the benefits of a more global economy ready to fight against it.

Trade is central to this debate. It is trade that lifted us from narrow tribalism and created understanding that we gain from cooperation. Trade lies at the heart of many of our ethical standards and principles. Without trade, we revert to a world in which the strongest takes all.

Those of us who are employed in the construction and management of trading relationships certainly have an interest in the survival and success of open markets and free trade. This means we must be sensitive to the forces that could undermine them. As we structure deals and negotiate agreements, we should be aware of this wider stakeholder audience and consider how we might contribute to allaying their fears and reconciling them to the many benefits that flow from maintaining global trade and reducing the barriers to it.

Increasingly, our networked world will demand an expanded view of morality, fairness and shared benefits. In many ways, this is a continuing evolution; only 100 years ago, colonialists saw no issue with rampant exploitation of native communities and just 20 years ago, major corporations similarly saw little wrong with the use of child labor. The speed with which we are having to adjust our values is amazing, but the need to do so is urgent.

Major projects for infrastructure, the exploitation of new mineral sources, the outsourcing of services – each of these is an example where we must think holistically about how contracts are structured to be inclusive of the communities that are affected and to allay their fears, not exacerbate them. Good commercial management today demands much broader knowledge and judgment than in the past; without it, the future of trade truly is at risk.

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