By Briscoe, Ivan
Despite their vastly different agendas, NGOs stand united in their plea for stemming the power of transnational corporations through more plural global structures
As protest movements go, the mass gatherings that shouted down trade representatives and finance officials over the past year in Seattle, Washington and Bangkok bore few of the hallmarks of traditional opposition. There was no formal hierarchy to speak of, no single nationality, no clear shared cause. In the eyes of one pro-business group, the new genre of activism mimicked a political "swarm."
Yet though the diversity of the groups--from northern steel unions to disappearing tribes--seemed to many critics like rank incoherence, the movement's leaders stress that this very variety stands at the heart of their political project. In place of the uniform spread of commercial values, derided by leading U.S. campaigner LoriWallach as a "one size fits all philosophy," they plead for new distribution of power that is porous enough to allow room for other interests.
"There's been an invasion in inappropriate spaces by unaccountable, unalterable trade rules," declares Wallach, whose public profile has soared since helping to co-ordinate the Seattle protests as director of the Public Citizen's Global TradeWatch. "A version of the rules has been imposed that has much more to do with corporate input than the input from public interest... That's the democracy deficit in the global economy."
In the eyes of campaigners, the rapid, government approved spread of the free market has stripped political debate of any interest in the virtues that found a good society or legitimate global order. But the questions remain: how can the corporate bottom line be eclipsed with the least economic damage? What reforms are needed, and where?
According to Walden Bello, executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South, globalization must be rescued from its current "monolithic, uniform and universalistic character" that has seen transnational corporations account for a majority of the world's exports and global inequality more than double since 1960.
A chief culprit, he argues, is "the free market biases of the framework pushed by the trinity of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are fundamentally antithetical to the sort of diverse world that is conducive to equity. It is vital to cut them down to size--make them just ordinary actors among a plural set of actors in the global economy."
But the problem, as many activists agree, is that there are scanty for a for these demands to be heard and acted upon. National governments are seen as weak in the face of global finance, or in the case of developing nations, hamstrung by the obligations of IMF-sponsored debt reduction programmes and foreign aid. Business itself has no wish to see its wings clipped, while international bodies--from the United Nations to the WTO's infamous "green room" trade talks, allegedly dominated by rich nations--appear saddled with undemocratic structures and practices. …