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The Establishment versus Civil Society

Published by Newsweek on 1998-12-01

In Australia last week, thousands of anti-globalization protesters disrupted a high-powered regional meeting hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum--renowned for its annual celebrity bash in Davos--causing participants such as Microsoft's Bill Gates to cancel many of their appointments and hide in hotels. The Melbourne police smashed some heads with batons, and took scores of demonstrators into custody. The ugly tableau was remiscient of violent protests at the World Trade Organization's convention in Seattle last year, and the World Bank's recent meeting in Washington. In fact, Melbourne featured many of the same nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) who disrupted these gatherings.

The grassroots activists have also vowed to put on a similar show at the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Prague next week. These institutions--like the World Economic Forum--are plump targets because they attract economic and political mandarins, most of whom would ordinarily prefer to meet behind closed doors and away from the scrutiny of the media or populist mobs. In the Forum's case, protestors pointed to the virtually all-white nature of the Forum's top staff, adding that damning accusation to their longstanding litany of complaints against the flag-bearers of globalization: lack of transparency and accountability.

This continuum of protests is likely to soon make it impossible for international organizations such as the Forum, the WTO, the Bank and the IMF--the unholy quartet of NGO villains--to hold showy meetings without risking violence and pandemonium. It is not that every NGO is opposed to globalization, the mobilization of capital and corporate resources for global investment and economic structural changes. Proponents of globalization claim--as they did in Melbourne--that it's a vast new opportunity to bring economic rationalization and order to a rather chaotic global economic landscape. Globalization, they say, will standardize and broaden the global economic playing field and eventually benefit everyone.

But the chief objection of NGOs is that this new game is being used not only for economic advancement but also to engineer social, political and cultural objectives that support the self-interest of an economic oligarchy. Such globalization, the protestors contend, results in vital decision making being removed from the hands of local players and transferred to various quasi-anonymous world bodies such as the Bank and the IMF which aren't fully accountable or transparent and are in league with multinational corporations. The NGOs recognize that globalization is inevitable; but it's the conditions of inevitablity that they are worried about.

They should be worrying more about the poor quality of leadership and governing institutions in developing countries--which are the most fragile of states. The NGOs should expect the same levels of transparency and accountability from their native leaders as they do from the global behemoths. Why aren't there more organized protests in developing nations against corruption, tribalism, and the lack of corrective mechanisms such as independent judiciaries and nonpartisan law enforcement agencies?

That's because too many NGOs from developing countries--backed by their do-good brethren from rich countries--are inclined to give their leaders a pass. It's far more convenient, not to mention comfortable, to set up barricades in nice Western cities such as Seattle, Melbourne and Prague. Try these stunts in Nairobi, and the goons of the local despot, President Daniel arap Moi, will ruthlessly put down any demonstration. So Moi gets away with virtually no dissidence, while the Bank's James D. Wolfensohn can barely move these days without getting into NGO gridlock.

"We are moving toward a new global upheaval--Davos Man versus Seattle man," warns Professor Ralph Buultjens of New York University. "However, these protests may be pushing reform among the global economic power brokers--in the same way that communism made capitalism more socially conscious. But if these protests continue unabated and unchecked, many of the gains of globalization could be washed away by continuing hostilities."

It would be unrealistic to expect the protests to subside, subsidized as they are by weighty Western foundations with heavy wallets. On the one hand, of course, the protests shake off some of the smugness of international bureaucrats and the grand panjandrum of the global economic community who have been comfortably cloistered in their well appointed offices and board rooms for too long. Perhaps a better platform for NGOs could be a new forum established by the less villanous United Nations specifically for what's now called civil society. There, undistracted by mounted policemen from Melbourne or well-maintained povertycrats from Geneva, NGOs and standard bearers of globalization alike can get down to serious, thoughtful dialogue. After all, when everybody shrieks, nobody hears a thing.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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