Expanding Globalization’s Agenda

One poster carried by a young protester near the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington last Sunday showed many small fish coming together in the shape of a huge, collective fish to swallow a big one. The question for many activists and others is how to help empower the little fish in poor countries.

Demonstrators this week in Washington, like the ones last fall in Seattle, seek to slow down or stop the globalization process that has so far championed only capital. They include the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth that helped organize the non-violent rallies in both Seattle and Washington (Young anarchists led most of the violent protests that occurred in both cities). The “South Summit” of 133 developing nations that assembled last week in Cuba echoed some of their demands.

An uphill fight

Unlike the protesters on the street, most human-rights groups take no stand on globalization and articulate no positions on any economic issues. Nonetheless, they often try to piggyback on the commercial ties that globalization seeks to expand. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute each regularly lobby the United States and other Western governments to pressure weaker nations to respect international human-rights standards as a condition of expanded trade and other bilateral relations.

The demonstrators have highlighted dubious WTO/IMF practices

The street demonstrations deserve credit for bringing needed attention to the most dubious practices of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the IMF. They need greater transparency and a more participatory decision-making process. The painful and destabilizing form of globalization that the IMF practices, especially, needs to change. And the notion that nations should embrace free societies at the same time that they accept free trade remains almost as low on the agenda for people working inside the institutions as it is for those outside them protesting their annual meetings.

Trying to stop globalization is like trying to win the war on drugs; both efforts seek to negate market dynamics. Nevertheless, presuming that communities everywhere should stand by while capital-driven globalization overwhelms and, in too many cases, impoverishes them is just as narrow-minded. The current agenda of most globalization backers, including the Clinton administration, is hardly inspiring to anyone but those who have already accumulated much capital. Today’s open economic waters give wealthy nations and their corporations the obvious advantage.

Last week’s scenes in Washington resonated across the Florida straits in Havana, where U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the “South Summit.”

The 133 nations meeting in Havana timed their gathering to coincide with the annual IMF and World Bank meetings. Some Americans might easily dismiss the “Group of 77” (still known for the original group of 77 states that began the poor nation movement back in 1964) if one did not know that the Southern coalition today includes many nations important to U.S. interests like Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The limitations of protest

The agenda of the “South Summit” was a bit more focused than the protests in Washington. This year’s chairman is Nigeria’s U.N. representative, Chief Arthur C.I. Mbanefo. He echoed the call by American church groups in Washington for broad debt relief for developing nations. In Havana, Annan avoided the most controversial issues while urging delegates to make sure that “the voice of the South [is] heard good and loud” by sticking to a “positive, practical agenda.” Like the demonstrators in Washington, one 40-nation panel of the group demanded not only both more transparency and broader participation in decision-making at both the IMF and the World Bank, but also more power for the U.N. General Assembly and enlargement of the U.N. Security Council.

The “Group of 77,” however, does not want to abolish the World Bank or the more-resented IMF, which a group press release said could still play an effective role in “stabilizing volatile international capital flows.” Neither do leading anti-poverty non-governmental organizations, like OXFAM. In recent years, the World Bank has expanded badly needed programs like providing credit to women (repeated studies have shown that they are far more reliable to repay them than men are) to help them establish their own small businesses in the face of the multinational corporations that are now earning the most from globalization.

Of course, implement any large-scale debt relief or anti-poverty measures for most developing nations would require more resources from wealthy nations. And the United States still gives little more than one-tenth of 1{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of its total economic output for non-military foreign aid, far less proportionately than either Western Europe that on average gives over two-tenths of 1{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af}, or Japan that gives nearly three-tenths of 1{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af}. Yet hardly anyone in the globalization debate — in the United States at least — has yet to suggest that Americans should pay higher taxes in order to finance such measures. Instead, most of the demonstrators in Washington, like the heads of state and foreign ministers in Havana, are demanding a transfer of resources from North to South without saying how the United States, Europe, and Japan should divide up the bill.

The limitations of this approach are apparent, and it makes for an unusual alliance between wealthy non-American elites and anti-wealthy American radicals. Most developing nations are dominated and governed by their own privileged circles, while most demonstrators this spring in Washington say they are agitating on behalf of the world’s masses. Today both foreign elites and American demonstrators seek to strengthen the international concept of national sovereignty to resist World Bank and IMF measures that in recent years have inflicted painful measures on corrupt elites along with the usual poor in a few nations like Indonesia. At the same time, most American labor and environmental groups distrust their own government too much to try and piggyback their demands on globalization’s cross-border agenda.

Let go of sovereignty

Unlike anti-globalization protesters, human-rights activists do not cling to the concept of state sovereignty. They are not necessarily worried about wealthy states pushing weaker ones around. That leading human-rights groups criticized the NATO war on Yugoslavia only on tactical grounds is one example. They also supported the case against Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who stands accused in Spain of having committed crimes against humanity in Chile.

The effort to establish the International Criminal Court further challenges the sovereignty of all states. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International back the court, while they defend political and collective bargaining rights across borders. Neither group takes any position outside its mandate. George Soros, for one, openly supports a limited, regulated form of capitalism that would give small fish a better chance to compete and grow.

Whether to strengthen or weaken national sovereignty in the 21st century is an issue of profound importance for not only the international flow of capital but also for information, rights and standards. Clinging to sovereignty as a panacea for globalization’s woes is as myopic as trying to break down borders for capital alone. The United States will only gain credibility among people and states to open more markets if it couples the campaign with the international adoption of minimum standards to protect labor, people and the planet. In the long run, their adoption would not only reduce costs, it would help stabilize nations and create emerging markets for not only investments, but goods.

Instead, globalization’s backers like the Clinton administration follow short-sighted greed. One thing is already clear in the water. The little fish need help, and only a few of them are getting any, even though many different people, groups and institutions speak in their name.

Frank Smyth is a contributing editor at IntellectualCapital.com.