Global Policy Forum

Globalisation Under Attack..... Or Not


By John Madeley

May 1998

Geneva -- It is commonly assumed that nongovernmental organisations, unlike governments, work together - or that they should. But they seem to stand divided - right down the middle - over the issue of how to deal with globalisation. Recently, NGOs from Africa, Asia and Latin America stole the show from their counterparts based in affluent Northern countries by convening a conference in Geneva to highlight the impact of free trade. In addition, a debate on globalisation dominated NGO events in London for the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM-2) in April.

The aim of the Geneva meet was plain from its title - the 1st Conference of Peoples' Global Action Against Free Trade and the World Trade Organisation. It sought to allow peoples' movements from all continents to pool into "worldwide resistance against globalisation" and build up local alternatives.

It was convened by groups that included Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, the Karnataka State Farmers' Association of India, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Nigeria, the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, the Central Sandinista de Trabajadores, Nicaragua, and the Indigenous Women's Network, based in North America and the Pacific. >From the North, a Spanish-based organisation - Play Fair Europe! - played an important role in organising the conference in the city that houses the World Trade Organisation.

But the North's mainstream development NGOs stayed away, possibly deterred by pre-conference publicity which said that a hallmark of the global alliance would be a "confrontational attitude, i.e. fundamental opposition to the world trading system, since we do not think lobbying can have a major impact." Lobbying is at the centre of most Northern NGO campaigns.

The depth of the South's feeling against globalisation - the world as a single market - was considerable in the Geneva meet. "Globalisation is destroying millions of livelihoods," said Sarath Fernando of the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform in Sri Lanka. "The alternative is for us to fight back for our survival." Farmers from India spoke of how globalisation has led to lower tariff barriers on food imports into India, and that the increase in these imports was affecting their livelihoods. "We want to tell the governments that they are destroying humanity with these policies," said Alejandro Demichelis, of the Confederation of Education Workers, Argentina.

There was nonetheless a wide range of views among the 300 participants about lobbying and confrontation. The strategies appear to stem from analyses of the globalisation process itself - activists who think it can be reversed want to confront it; others favour alternatives. "The process of economic globalisation is irreversible," said a Filipino participant, Clarissa Balan, of the World Student Christian Federation. "We can develop an alternative, parallel trading system that is fairer than the main system. If people will spend their money on fairly traded products, then this type of trade could be a real challenge to globalisation."

A manifesto, agreed by the participants, spoke of the need to revive traditional knowledge systems and strengthen local market systems "by developing producer-consumer linkages and cooperatives." Only a global alliance of people's movements, it says, can implement action-orientated alternatives that can stop globalisation. The manifesto calls for direct confrontation with transnational corporations, and stresses that "direct democratic action" against globalisation should be combined with the constructive building of alternative and sustainable lifestyles.

It also says that "democratic action carries with it the essence of non-violent civil disobedience to the unjust system." Many participants believed that non-violent civil disobedience was one way of fighting back against the 'undemocratic nature' of the globalisation process. "Even democratically elected governments have been implementing policies of the globalisation of poverty without debate among their own peoples or their elected representatives," the manifesto says.

Civil disobedience against globalisation is already happening in both the North and South. In India, farmers have burnt imported foodstuff in protest against an increase in food imports - just as Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi torched British-made clothes in the 1940s. In France, 120 members of the French Peasant Confederation forced their way into a Novartis factory recently to denature transgenic maize seeds in protest against a government decision to allow the cultivation of this maize. During the action, the modified seeds were mixed up with non-modified varieties. In Britain too, small 'direct action groups' have been staging imaginative protests against such globalisation-linked issues as genetic engineering in food products and the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) that is aimed at easing the path of Northern private investments into developing countries.

While issues such as the MAI are as yet little understood, the movement is broadening in Britain - ordinary people are getting involved as genetically-modified food is widely seen as a health hazard. Signs of a North-South NGO divide were apparent at the London meetings to coincide with the Asia-Europe summit - held in the backdrop of the financial crisis in Asia that is blamed by many NGOs on the global free movement of financial capital. Several activists disagreed with Britain's International Development minister Clare Short's assessment that "globalisation is unstoppable - the genie is out of the bottle. If we demand that it stop, it will not." Martin Khor of the Penang-based Third World Network replied: "Globalisation is not something has dropped from heaven. It is not inevitable; it is made by human beings taking decisions in rich countries. We can change those rules - in the WTO, in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."

An eight-page document brought out by the NGO event and presented to British Premier Tony Blair avoids mentioning the word globaliation altogether. Andy Rutherford of the British NGO One World Action, who helped author the document, said: "It is not a question of evading globalisation. The debate on whether globalisation is good or bad is a disempowering debate. We have to go beyond those comments. Our aim is to constructively engage with leaders in Asia and Europe." Khor said if a similar NGO event had been held in the developing world, "I suspect the outcome would have been different. The language would have been more pointed, very clear, more critical of globalisation. For those of us living in the developing world, globalisation is a dirty word. Here (in the North), it is a positive word."

However, Vandana Shiva, a well-known Indian activist on agricultural, food and environmental issues, points out that globalisation has forced people both in the North and the South into "a common condition of exclusion." "It's the first time that northern citizens have experienced this - it's a situation we have always experienced, and we now have grounds for a new solidarity," she says.

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