A commitment to pluralism
In multicultural societies (and most societies today are multicultural) the easing of internal social and cultural conflicts depends, in the long run, on an expanding economic base, with rising employment and improved living standards. Yet it is also true that the process of economic development itself can create or exacerbate social and cultural conflicts. Modernization schemes involving ambitious literacy and educational programmes have resulted in large numbers of educated and semi-educated youths, often without employment or without the kind of jobs they seek. Aspirations have been aroused in advance of what the economy can deliver, and this is the breeding ground for discontent and eruptions against other groups. Unemployed youth in urban centres has been the most visible and active participant in ethno-nationalist movements and riots. In India the Hindu nationalist movement with anti-Muslim sentiments is composed largely of semi-educated unemployed or underemployed young people of upper and middle-caste origins. Similarly in Sri Lanka two groups of disaffected educated youths suffering from felt discrimination and relative deprivation, one drawn from the majority Sinhalese population, the other from the minority Tamils, have mounted insurgencies.
Large-scale population movements and migrations in recent decades have caused dramatic changes in the demographic ratios and social and cultural mixes of people in some regions, and caused the local population to feel endangered and beleaguered. The process of economic development facilitates and encourages this kind of mobility, which increases economic efficiency and normally improves the living standards of both migrants and domestic population. At the same time, the resulting clash between different populations has favoured a heightening of ethnic identification, particularly when migration leads to competition for control over access to economic wealth, political power and social status. This is also true when there is a strong notion of territorial ethnicity, certain ethnic groups seeing themselves rooted in space as "sons of the soil," or when migration brings about swift changes in the demographic balance and the mix of ethnic groups, most notably in fast growing metropolitan cities and industrial towns. And it is also true of groups of immigrants, sometimes initially admitted as "guest workers" into many countries that import labour. They often suffer discrimination and segregation by the dominant culture.
In recent years the main receiving high-income countries registered net immigration of approximately 1.4 million annually, about two thirds of whom originated in developing countries. Keeping in mind that international migration entails the loss of human resources for many countries of origin and that it may give rise to political, economic and social tensions in countries of destination, we should explore at least those root causes of the problem which relate to the spheres of culture and development: the strong appeal of certain ideas, institutions and accomplishments to people all over the world, such as the welfare state, material security, social security networks, health, educational and communication infrastructures. In addition to these forces of attraction or pull, there are also powerful forces of push: the existence of economic imbalances, poverty, bad governance and human rights violations in many places are strong incentives to emigrate. Governments of countries of origin and of destination must try harder to make the option of remaining in one's own country viable for all.
In many of the world's fast growing cities, migrants from rural regions, sometimes speaking different dialects and practising regional customs, or immigrants from low-income countries, attracted by the better prospects and the cosmopolitan environment, take on unskilled and low level work (in construction, road building, harbours and ports, domestic service and so on). The plight of these low level migrant or immigrant workers naturally deteriorates whenever economic conditions worsen and the local population wants to expel the newcomers.
But the opposite may also occur, migrants having skills and capacities superior to those of the locals, and enjoying affluence and social prestige. This can lead to particularly acrimonious and contentious situations, especially in post-colonial and post-independence times, when formerly disadvantaged indigenous people wish to displace the successful "aliens" and newcomers. This often happens when the local population has produced its own educated youth who aspire to take over the occupations and enterprises formerly held or managed by the migrants. Such moves to displace people in favoured positions become particularly acute when employment in the modern sector is not expanding fast enough to incorporate rising locals into the middle class. Successful migrants are then viewed as obstacles to the social mobility and well-being of the local majority. In Northeast India, Assam, Tripura and elsewhere the collisions between the local hill tribes and the incoming West Bengali Hindu and Bangladeshi Muslim migrants; in Uganda, Idi Amin's expulsion of Indian merchants and professionals; with the dissolution of the Soviet Union many Russian professionals and administrators, who were sent or migrated to the various non-Russian republics are all faced with threats of displacement. And there have been programmes of peasant colonization in many countries, typically sponsored by government agencies, in which poor peasants and landless people, living in densely populated areas, are relocated in other less densely populated regions of the country where excess land can be developed for agriculture. In South Asia and elsewhere the local peasantry has risen up violently against the newcomer "colonists" whose transplantation has been seen not as a measure to relieve their poverty but as a device to alter population ratios between ethnic groups.
Ethnic conflicts often result in human rights violations against groups, ranging from genocide to illegal and arbitrary detention, torture, mass population removals, deportations and segregation, to lack of due process of law, discrimination in public and private institutions, and other forms of open or subtle antagonism. When they are committed by private individuals or groups, the legal system can usually act, provided the government in power is willing and able to let it do so. This is not always the case, for example when human rights abuses are committed by economically or politically powerful groups against a marginalized one, such as a local people. Nor is it the case when official state policy is intolerant, racist or discriminatory, and when the state uses terror and violence against minorities or dissenters.
All conflicts of this kind are not only a hideously wasteful expenditure of social energies, but are against the economic interests and the cultural creativity of all those engaged in them. Economic growth and economic welfare call for maximum voluntary mobility not only of goods (free trade) but also of people within and between countries, and this implies cultural contacts and cultural diversity of an unprecedented magnitude. That these contacts be handled in social harmony and justice, and that peaceful solutions be found to resolve the inevitable tensions and conflicts, are major challenges today.