World Social Forum 2009: a generation’s challenge

January 30, 2009

By Geoffrey Pleyers*,

These should be good times for the “alter-globalisation” movement. The unprecedented combination of crises in the global economy, environment, and governance makes its argument for a just and equal world – “another world” – seem more relevant than ever.

Yet the 100,000 activists expected to assemble at the eighth World Social Forum (WSF) in Belém, Brazil, from 27 January- 1 February 2009 are at a crossroads.  The ideas they have been proposing for much of the last decade have in many ways been vindicated by the global financial breakdowns, food riots and elite failures of 2007-09; but even as it celebrates the demise of forces it has unrelentingly challenged the movement itself is divided over its political and organisational direction.

The change within

After its inaugural meeting in January 2001 – a year after the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit which dynamised the movement – the WSF experienced impressive growth, reflected in increasing participation (from 15,000 to over 170,000 from 2001-05). The forums have become huge meeting-places where people of many nationalities share experiences and discuss local and global issues.

The “alter-globalisation” movement (also called the “anti-corporate-globalisation movement” or the “global social justice movement”) has undergone two profound changes since the WSF’s last visit to Brazil, in January 2005. That event, in the city of Porto Alegre, remains the most successful forum of all – in terms of the quality and openness of the discussions, and of the size of the event (200,000 people attended the opening demonstration, and 2,500 workshops were run by 5,700 civil-society organisations).

The first great change is in the social geography of the movement, with a notable decline in some of its historical bastions (including most western European countries) but success in important regions such as Africa (where, for example, over sixty national and regional social forums have been organised since 2005) and north America.

The second change is the reorganisation of the movement around new guidelines. The internal quarrels about the forums’ objectives and the movement’s political orientations are a symptom of this reconfiguration.

The paradox of Geneva

The World Trade Organisation meeting in Geneva on 22-29 July 2008 offered a clear illustration of the current state of the social movement. The purpose of the meeting of thirty delegations from the WTO’s most influential member-states was to break the deadlock over the Doha trade-liberalisation process; the failure of negotiations in Seattle (1999), Cancún (2003) andHong Kong (2005) meant that the credibility of the organisation was at stake.

Europe’s “alter-globalisation” organisations had been able to mount large-scale demonstrations at the international summits inGenoa (2001), Gleneagles (2005) and Rostock (2007). Yet despite the importance of the WTO conference – and the fact that it took place in the midst of an evolving global economic crisis – they were unable to mobilise their activists at Geneva.

The evidence of retreat is unmistakable. Major activists’ networks – such as  the Movimiento de Resistencia Global in Barcelona, the Attac movement and most local social forums – have disappeared or declined; continental forums such as those in Malmö (17-21 September 2008, with 12,000 in attendance) and Guatemala City (7-12 October 2008, with 7,500) attracted far fewer people than previously. Moreover, the movement is much less visible in the mass media than in the 1998-2005 period.

At the same time, the influence of the movement has been felt in other ways. Many of the institutions charged with supervising international trade liberalisation, which encouraged southern countries to adopt neo-liberal policies, now facediscredit. Whereas in the 1990s, opening a country to international trade was seen as the only path to greater economic growth, by the late 2000s it had become routine for establishment voices and even state leaders to express support for a new global governance system to contain the destructive tendencies of “casino-“, “cowboy-“, “hyper-” or “super-” capitalism.

The change of rhetoric reflects a wider ideological shift: the end of three decades marked by the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas. The “alter-globalisation” movement has played an active role in this process, for example by enlarging the space of discussion of trade and economic policies far beyond the realm of international “experts”, and by challenging the neo-liberal orthodoxiesof the Washington consensus. Thus even in their relative retreat from the mass mobilisations of the past, the social movements have won a kind of ideological victory.

There is a paradox here: the “alter-globalisation” movement and the organisations and events which compose it seem to have lost much of their capacity at the very time when even prominent policy-makers are coming to believe that the global financial and governance system has in crucial respects failed.

The failure of success

In these circumstances, what is the point of the World Social Forum? It could be argued that it more needed now than ever: that is, to contribute actively to the building of a new and fair global order that can address deep problems of poverty, inequality, food insecurity and ecological crisis. The problem here is that the movement is more united in what it has been against than in what it should now be for. In particular, “alter-globalisation” activists divide into three distinct currents about the way forward.

The local approach

The first current of the alter-globalisation movement) considers that instead of getting involved in a global movement and international forums, the path to social change lies through giving life to horizontal, participatory, convivial and sustainable values in daily practices, personal life and local spaces.

Many urban activists cite the way that, for example, the Zapatistas in Mexico and other Latin American indigenous movements now focus on developing communities’ local autonomy via participatory self-government, autonomous education systems and improving the quality of life. They appreciate too the convivial aspect of local initiatives and their promise of small but real alternatives to corporate globalisation and mass consumption.

This approach is exemplified also in initiatives such as the “collective purchase groups” that have multiplied in western Europe and north America. These typically gather small groups of people who buy from local (and often organic) food-producers in the effort to make quality food affordable, create alternatives to the “anonymous supermarket” and promote local social relations. In many Italian social centres, critical-consumption movements have taken the space previously occupied by the alter-globalisation mobilisations. The “convivial de-growth” and “convivial urban” movements belong to a similar, sustainable and environmentally friendly, tendency.

The advocacy approach

The second current of the movement believes that the way forward lies through efficient single-issue networks able to develop coherent arguments in areas such as food sovereignty and developing-world debt; in turn this work can become a route to raising broader questions.

The protection of water-supplies from privatisation, for example, can be used to explore the issues of global public goods, the role of global corporations and  “the long-term efficiency of the public sector”. After several years of intense exchanges among citizens and experts focusing on the same issue, the quality of arguments has considerably increased to the extent that this form of activity has become the core of the social-forums’ dynamic.

There are several examples of the effectiveness of such networks – often without media attention. The European Public Water Network’s influence on the city of Paris’s decision in November 2008 to restore municipal control over water distribution is just one.

The state approach

The third current of the movement holds that progressive public policies implemented by state leaders and institutions are the key to achieving broad social change.

In the past, “alter-globalisation” activists have struggled to strengthen state agency in social, environmental and economic fields; but now that state intervention has regained legitimacy in the wake of systemic crisis, this more “political” component of the movement believes that the future lies in solidarity with the projects of radical leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

The national policies of these leaders (social programmes favouring the poor, or taking control of key economic sectors) and their regional alliances and new institutions (the Alternativa Bolivariana por Nuestra América [Alba] coalition, the Banco del Sur) represent a strong pole of attraction for many activists. But if Latin America is the main focus for such identification, similar processes have been at work in western countries too; for example, much of the impetus of the first United States Social Forum in 2007 was redirected towards Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

The shared approach

The participants in the Belém meeting can justly welcome the failure of many aspects of an economic model they long opposed. But as they move beyond critique towards a new role in a transformed global arena, can they find some common ground among these three currents?

An escape from the crises of economy, sustainability and governance is a huge and urgent task that may last a generation. From this perspective, the three trends of the “alter-globalisation” movement could be seen as politically complementary rather than competing strategies. An imaginative understanding of this kind could be the basis of a shared approach that gives the World Social Forum a fresh lease of life.

*Geoffrey Pleyers is a researcher of the Belgian Foundation for Scientific Research at the University of Louvain (UCL) and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics

The pointlessness of talking hunger in Madrid

January 30, 2009

NewAge, January 30, 2009

In the past two decades, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have largely overseen what was described as ‘structural adjustments’ in developing and least developed economies, which involved the dismantling of tariff regimes that protected local industry and production, among them small-scale agriculture, writes Mahtab Haider

The United Nations summit for food security ended on Tuesday in Madrid without much cause for hope for the world’s hungry. Leading up to the meet, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation had warned that the number of people worldwide now suffering from hunger is 963 million, and though food prices have fallen since last year’s peak, they are still higher than the trend observed through much of the past decade. In Madrid, delegates from some of the world’s leading economic powers heard UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon warn that the global financial crisis will push poverty and hunger to ‘intolerable levels’, but there was little or no meaningful discussion on the trade and economic regimes that are in large part responsible for such chronic hunger. Meanwhile, it was only Spain that committed to a larger aid package for interventions during disasters and famines.

Today, the world, in aggregate, produces more food than it has ever before. According to a study published jointly last year by the FAO, the Stockholm International Water Institute and the International Water Management Institute, close to half of all food produced worldwide is wasted after production. Clearly the problem is not one of production but of inequities in who can buy this food and in what quantities. One of the biggest reasons why hunger is advancing side by side with an expanding global output of food is families across the least developed world are emerging on the losing side of globalisation and neo-liberal reforms, thus losing their ability to buy food. In that sense, even in a scenario of food abundance and falling prices, families may still have little or nothing to buy food with. This grim predicament is confirmed by numerous studies of famines, which reveal that it is not a shortage of food but the loss of purchasing power of a large section of the population that has been responsible for some of the worst famines in modern history.

So, while discussions on food security at global summits seem to inevitably veer towards how global food production could be expanded to feed the hungry millions, what is missing is meaningful discussions on how heavily subsidised agri-businesses in the industrialised north are flooding third world markets with cheap food that drives farming families into penury, to the point that they cannot afford to buy food as cheap as it may be. In the past two decades, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have largely overseen what was described as ‘structural adjustments’ of developing and least developed economies which involved the dismantling of tariff regimes which protected local industry and production, among them small-scale agriculture. And if it was cheap food imports that strangled small scale agriculture, financial ‘reforms’ in the form of shrinking public sector investment in agricultural research and expansion, as well as fewer formal credit sources for farmers, and the Bank and the Fund’s pressure to reduce agricultural subsidies have all constituted nails in the coffin.

In predominantly agrarian economies like Bangladesh, small farmers have found it increasingly difficult to compete with imported food. While Bangladesh has almost always been a net importer of food, there has also always been a portion of total food production that did not enter the formal economy and was set aside by small or tenant farmers as a source of food for their families. It is the absence of this food that is forcing marginalised and tenant farmers to buy food for most of the year, often forcing them also to sell off farming implements or their small landholdings to finance day-to-day living.

This uncharted chronic hunger is like a double-edged sword which is also taking its toll on health and education that families at the margin are able to afford. As food prices are rising, families have less and less left over to spend on their children’s education and their healthcare, thus being mired deeper in poverty despite national development efforts. According to the aid agency Oxfam, about two-thirds of the billion people living in hunger currently live in the Asia-Pacific region, ‘including some 200 million people in India. Progress in reducing hunger has been variable, with some countries and regions making significant progress, and others falling further behind. Sub-Saharan Africa is a region causing serious concern, as the number of hungry people has increased by 43 million over the last fifteen years to 212 million.’

For Bangladesh, the most terrifying aspect of rising food prices internationally is that crop yields are falling at home with climate change wreaking havoc on the agricultural calendar. The rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods have meant that many agrarian communities have seen their resilience worn out by a series of natural disasters which have pushed families to sell farming assets to get by in the short run. On the other hand, the consequent chronic malnutrition and the devastating health effects this has in the long run could offset some of the major gains in social indicators Bangladesh has made in the past decade. A glimpse of Bangladesh’s predicament was evident from its situation in 2007 — in the wake of two back-to-back floods followed by Cyclone Sidr — which not only destroyed crops but also coping capacities across south and central Bangladesh. It has since emerged that Sidr destroyed 600,000 metric tonnes of standing crop in the first few hours of making landfall.

The series of initiatives for the agricultural sector — especially the cut in fertiliser prices and the consistent assurances that agri-subsidies are set to rise — adopted by the newly elected government could be key to a more stable market for food at home, and could go a long way in offsetting the damage. But there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way the government views food security — not as a problem of production but as a problem of entitlements — launching massive employment guarantee schemes and food for work programmes to ensure that hunger does not persist in an environment of abundance.

In recent times Brazil has pioneered a number of initiatives to support impoverished people and family farmers, which are yielding substantial benefits. According to Oxfam, ‘family farmers benefit from credit, insurance schemes, technical assistance, and a food procurement programme that buys food from them for redistribution to the poor and destitute…support to agriculture is combined with social protection measures that include universal access to the Rural Social Security System, the Bolsa Família (family grants) programme, school meals, and minimum wages.’ This comprehensive approach to combating hunger lies at the heart of a meaningful solution. In India school meals have also been introduced as a way to at once keep children in schools, and making sure their nutritional needs are nominally met.


Beware of bilateral bullies

January 29, 2009

Tanim Ahmed*, NewAge, January 29, 2009

The interest of India and the United States to launch trade talks with Bangladesh provides the government with an opportunity to expand its export market. It would depend on how well the government negotiates and increased openness could only help the government strengthen its arguments. 

IN THE span of one week both the Indian and American ambassadors to Bangladesh indicated their respective governments’ interest to launch talks for trade and investment. These issues with both the countries have been pending for quite some time. Although early in the government’s tenure these issues were only bound to have surfaced at some point and probably sooner, rather than later, so that there would be a possibility of concluding the deals during the tenure of the current government. However, it does make things a little critical since indication of intent comes from the two of the most influential countries, as far as Bangladeshi politics is concerned.

Given the virtual stalemate at the global trade talks in the ongoing Doha Round under the World Trade Organisation, bilateral and regional trade pacts have become the new tools to further international trade and commerce. The situation has remained virtually unchanged since 2001 when the new trade round was launched in the Qatari capital. Of course, the new US administration, under Barack Obama, might give a new impetus, if their negotiating position is slightly more accommodative and sensitive; however, it is unlikely to happen in the near future. In the meantime, however, bilateral and regional treaties appear to have consolidated their position as the main tools for furthering trade and commerce and securing prosperity and opulence for the global north.

This deviation from the multilateral process and emergence of the bilateral and regional treaties came about once it was obvious that the developed countries would have a harder time opening up the markets of the developing world than they had previously thought. Instead, it is the bilateral treaties that have proved to be most effective in securing their desired concessions and preferences in the developing world. It is often the case that the more powerful and larger economies emerge as the outright winners in bilateral treaties. This inherent advantage is not only because a poor country, for instance Bangladesh, would not be able to summon enough courage to stand up to the more powerful country, for instance India or the United States, and argue its position from the other side of the table. But it is also because the Bangladesh lacks the resources, information, skills and human resources.

Consequently, it is the through such bilateral treaties and powerful countries are able to secure concessions furthering their commercial interests and forcing those countries to liberalise their markets thereby getting the field ready for corporations to enter into the fray. Bilateral treaties often contain far stronger provisions to open up markets in the developing countries than the multilateral agreements under the World Trade Organisation. As a result, they erode the preferences that Bangladesh is entitled to as a least developed country under the global trade forum.

Bilateral treaties, on which both India and the United States are interested to launch talks, treat both parties as ‘equals’ and stipulate full reciprocity, which is inherently unjust to the smaller and weaker economy because they presume a same level of efficiency and maturity of both economies and have little space for the recognition of special treatment of commodities and investment of the poorer countries. It is from this perspective that the government should be cautious and tactful when entering trade talks with either country, especially given their attitude towards Bangladesh.

There has already been a token, and predictable, protest from the main opposition in parliament, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, cautioning the government about providing transit facilities to India, which has come to be an essential point of the Indian agenda as regards trade talks with Bangladesh. Presumably, there would be more from other political parties as well.

Almost any kind of bilateral discussions or negotiations with India invariably gives rise to scepticism and caution, and for good reason. It hardly plays with due responsibility the role of a ‘big brother’ that it has come to be, and surely intends to remain, in the subcontinent. Its hopes to become a regional superpower riding on its economic supremacy are not altogether far-fetched. But this advanced developing country has hardly shown a good gesture towards Bangladesh and this goes back several decades.

There was the case of exchanging enclaves in each other’s territories soon after Bangladesh’s war of independence. Although Bangladesh did its share the matter remains pending since 1974 as India pulled out, virtually at the last moment, claiming that it wanted to see changes in the agreement for redrawing maps. Then there was the Farakka Barrage a few years later, which India claimed was a small experiment and would not be a permanent feature. It remains. India has proceeded to build other dams on rivers that flow through Bangladesh for similar purposes and its river-linking project is still very much on. There was also the case of India’s unwarranted and illegal—according to the assessment of designated Indian authorities—imposition of anti-dumping duties on automobile batteries from Bangladesh.

Although at global negotiations India rightly points out to the developed industrialised countries that reciprocity, particularly when it is between much stronger developed countries and emerging developing countries, is unfair and undermines development, it does not approach trade negotiations with its smaller neighbours in the same spirit. It is not just that India fails to make generous concessions to its neighbours but it also fails to even reciprocate the preferences and concessions accorded to it.

In Bangladesh there are virtually no bars on Indian investment flowing into almost every sector, even sensitive ones including mineral resources, health services, educational institutions and so forth. Indeed, some of the Bengali publications from West Bengal thrive on Bangladeshi subscription and would perhaps fail to remain viable without their Bangladeshi readership. The local market is flooded with consumer goods and industrial products manufactured in India. It only points to the fact that there are hardly any trade barriers—tariff, non-tariff or para-tariff—for Indian products. However, the same is not true in the case of Bangladeshi products going into India.

Bangladeshi investment has only recently been allowed by India but only on ‘case by case’ basis, almost the same treatment given to Pakistan. There are numerous barriers—permits and licenses and so forth—that effectively bar Bangladeshi products going into India. Perhaps, in its bid to appease the larger neighbour, despite being a least developed country, Bangladesh appears to have overdone itself and received little in return.

India has indicated on several occasions that tariff reduction, and presumably improved market access, could only happen once it is accorded transit facilities. Such cross-linking of sectors and issues is a common ploy at the global level where India has become one of the key players and obviously learnt well from. Given its previous stance, India would try to bargain with preferences that it is in a way obligated to provide. As an advanced developing country, and member of the regional association, India should accord privileges to a least developed member. Right now transit is essential and will be pegged against tariff reduction and trade preferences. But if the pattern holds, then very soon, and once transit has been secured, it will be access to Bangladesh’s service sector in exchange for those same concessions pegged against transit.

However, India has only recently warmed to Bangladesh’s bid for improved market to the US market at the global trade forum, although it is accused of playing a villainous role at the last WTO summit instigating Pakistan and Sri Lanka to speak against Bangladesh receiving duty- and quota-free market access to developed countries. The United States in this regard has been staunchly opposed. Due to strong lobbying and internal pressure, the United States has repeatedly opposed a multilateral deal providing Bangladesh with a fully preferential market access. The United States Trade Representative’s office, which conducts negotiations for the United States, have time and again opposed Bangladesh’s bids to secure better market access which it deserves as a least developed country. The US has also objected to Bangladesh’s bid to increase and formalise temporary migration of low-skilled labour, which is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Bangladesh.

In this regard the United States has not yet given indications that it would implement the concessions that least developed countries were given at the Hong Kong summit of the WTO, which guaranteed tariff-free market access of all goods originating from least developed countries without any quotas to all the developed countries. There is little likelihood that the American position would change as soon as they begin negotiating a bilateral deal. If anything, their position will be even more opposed to the kind of market access that might benefit Bangladesh and even if such access required reciprocity, meaning that American exporters get similar opportunities for business in Bangladesh. There would be added pressure on implementation of intellectual property rights and strong pressure for ‘full reciprocity’ insisting on reciprocal treatment, which would be very unjust.

A bilateral agreement with either of the countries makes sense only if the benefits arising out of it are clearly and surely more than those arising from the multilateral agreement. There must be clear and guaranteed potential for Bangladesh’s commerce and trade to expand. Otherwise, it becomes a mere political exercise and entry into such deals would only serve the government’s claim ‘success’ of having struck trade agreement with key countries and gather whatever political mileage that is on offer.

While there are high expectations from the fresh faces of the cabinet, there are also significant sections waiting to pounce upon the cabinet at its slightest sign of failure. That both the crucial ministries of commerce and foreign affairs are headed by comparatively inexperienced ministers does not help allay apprehensions either. Both Pranab Mukherjee and Kamal Nath would prove far more than Dipu Moni or Faruk Khan could handle on their own. It should give the government all the more reason to encourage pubic discussions and debates at the parliament. Whether successful at the negotiations or not, the government could at least use this opportunity to prove its transparency to the people.

*Tanim Ahmed works for NewAge, a leading national daily newspaper in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Contact:

‘Globalization From Below’ Tackles the ‘Great Recession’

January 27, 2009

*By Jeremy Brecher, Brendan Smith, and Tim Costello

[As tens of thousands of activists from around the world gather in Belem, Brazil for the World Social Forum, social movements everywhere are debating how to respond to the ever-deepening economic crisis.  This article is excerpted from the longer Discussion Paper “GLOBALIZATION FROM BELOW” TACKLES THE “GREAT RECESSION” prepared by Global Labor Strategies.] 

At the pit of the Great Depression in 1930, an American country music group named the Carter Family recorded a song called The Worried Man Blues. It began:

“I went down to the river and I lay down to sleep 
When I woke up there were shackles on my feet.”

Though many subsequent verses describe the horrific outcome, there is no explanation of what had happened or why – just an awakening to a seemingly endless catastrophe.  The song immediately became an unprecedented national hit.  It’s hard to imagine that its success didn’t have something to do with capturing the sense of being the helpless victim of incomprehensible disaster that so many felt in the face of the Great Depression. 

The seemingly sudden collapse of the global economy in 2008 has similarly left millions, indeed billions of people all over the world a victims of a catastrophe that appears both inexplicable and unending. 

But what’s now being dubbed the “Great Recession” is neither incomprehensible nor irremediable.  On the contrary, it can be understood as an expectable result of a capitalism that has been globalized and at the same time “freed” by neoliberalism of control in the public interest.     

The economic globalization that transformed the world at the turn of the century promised, according to its advocates, a glorious vista of prosperity that would provide unprecedented economic growth and raise billions of people out of poverty.  In practice it generated personal and national insecurity, growing inequality, and a race to the bottom in which every community, nation, and workgroup had to reduce its social, environmental, and labor conditions to that of its most impoverished competitor. 

But economic globalization also gave birth to a new convergence of global social forces that opposed this kind of globalization.  People all over the world fought back against this “globalization from above” with their own “globalization from below.”  They used asymmetrical strategies of linking across the borders of nations and constituencies to become a counter power to the advocates of globalization.  They created a movement – variously known as the global justice movement, the anti-globalization movement, global civil society, or as we call it, “globalization from below” — that some in the media even characterized as “the world’s other superpower.”

The anti-globalization/global justice/globalization-from-below movement developed in response to the expansive phase of globalization and neoliberalism.  Now the global economy has entered the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.  The financial crisis has turned out to be the start of a cascade of other economic crises that are reshaping the global economy as definitively as an earthquake reshapes a city.  Current leaders of the world’s nations have utterly failed to develop a solution.   The likely impact of their failure on ordinary people around the world is incalculable. 

The advocates of globalization from above propounded as an article of faith that markets are self-regulating and that all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds if only governments, labor unions, citizens organizations, and the unruly mob let them alone to do their thing.

The times they are a-changing.  US government officials long known as market fundamentalists seize banks, buy mortgage and insurance companies, and commit $7.7 trillion – half of the US annual product — to government intervention in financial markets. 

The Clintonite “moderates” who once gutted the social safety net and sacrificed commitments to jobs programs in order to build up budget surpluses now propose vast public works programs financed by budget deficits.  The IMF, scourge of “irresponsible” countries that didn’t balance their budgets, advocates a trillion-plus dollars in global government deficits and claims to have replaced “structural adjustment conditionalities” with condition-free loans.      

These programs may well fail in halting the downward spiral of the global economy.  But they open the door to new forms of more social and public economy.  That’s one reason conservatives normally oppose them – and one indicator of how serious the present crisis really is.  The economic crisis makes it possible to put proposals on the table that have long been ruled inadmissible.   

While economists have asserted with great confidence that one after another trillion dollar “solution” would save the global economy, one after another has failed, raising the specter that it cannot be saved in its present form.  Peter Boon and Simon Johnson of the website recently raised that possibility in the Wall Street Journal.   They note that economists generally believe even the Great Depression of the 1930s could have been stopped by proper monetary policy.  But, Boon and Johnson argue, governments may simply not be able to prevent such huge deflationary spirals.  “Perhaps the events of 1929 produced an unstoppable whirlwind of deleveraging which no set of policy measures would truly be able to prevent.”  Their implication seems evident: The same could be true today.

The multi-trillion dollar rescues and bail-outs so far just attempt – possibly futilely — to save the status quo.  But what can we do if the status quo can’t be saved?  Can globalization from below really provide an alternative solution to the great recession? 

It has already started to do so.  A landmark was the meeting of a group of social movements and NGOs in October, 2008 on the occasion of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Beijing that developed a sketch for a “transitional program for radical economic transformation.”  The “Beijing Declaration”  laid out alternatives that are “practical and immediately feasible” that put the “well-being of people and the planet at their center.”  This requires “democratic control over financial and economic institutions.”  It includes proposals for finance, taxation, public spending and investment, international trade and finance, environment, and agriculture and industry.  It provides a brilliant first expression of a globalization-from-below alternative to the failures of globalization from above. 

The basic vision of the Declaration is summed up in its title:  “The global economic crisis:  An historic opportunity for transformation.”  Its goal, in other words, is not to shore up the status quo and return to the destructive form of globalization that preceded the crisis.  Its objective is almost the opposite of the eight-trillion-dollars-and-counting of bail-outs, rescues, and subsidies provided to business in recent months by the world’s governments.  It aims instead to provide “a transitional program for radical economic transformation” to a “different kind of political and economic order.”

“Transitional program” may sound like antiquated socialist rhetoric – a call to take state power and nationalize industry.  But both the goals and the methods are very different.  Indeed, the Declaration points a path between merely reestablishing the status quo and assuming that actions must be “revolutionary or nothing.”

No “maximalism” here.   “To capture people’s attention and support” the Declaration argues, proposals must be “practical and immediately feasible.”  That is possible because, even under the domination of globalization from above, people have been developing alternatives within the world’s nooks and crannies.  The unfolding economic crisis provides the opportunity “to put into the public domain some of the inspiring and feasible alternatives many of us have been working on for decades.”   

The goal linking these alternatives is “the well-being of people and the planet.”  And that requires a focus not primarily on restoring the financial system, but first and foremost on the great human and environmental crisis the world is facing in relation to food, climate, and energy.

Such common human interests are not the principal concerns of the people and institutions that now call the shots in national governments or the global economy.  The “well-being of people and the planet” will not be achieved by economic jiggering.  Instead, “democratic control over financial and economic institutions are required.” 

The vision of such democratic control, however, is not of either a centralized national or a centralized global economy.  It is closer to what Walden Bello elsewhere described  as the “co-existence” of a variety of “international organizations, agreements and regional groupings” that would allow “a more fluid, less structured, more pluralistic world with multiple checks and balances” in which nations and communities can “carve out the space to develop based on their values, their rhythms, and the strategies of their choice.”

The current economic crisis creates opportunity for transformation, the Declaration argues, because it severely weakens the power of the US, the EU, and the IMF, World Bank, and WTO.  It undermines the legitimacy of the neo-liberal paradigm.  And, where global pseudo-consensus once asserted that “there is no alternative” to liberal capitalism, the future of capitalism is now becoming an open question.

Of course, this moment can also be seized by “fascist, right wing populist, xenophobic groups” who will try to “take advantage of people’s fear and anger for reactionary ends.” 

What is the agency for pursuing constructive alternatives and resisting destructive ones?  It starts with the “powerful movements against neo-liberalism” that have been built over past decades.  These will grow along with public anger at the abuse of public funds for private subsidy, the crises of food, energy, and the environment, and the deepening recession.

As social movements from around the world converge in Belem, Brazil at the end of January for the World Social Forum, they will be in a position to take the next step toward realizing their potential as the world’s “other superpower.” Indeed, it is the convergence of the already existing networks and understandings of globalization from below with the new outrage at what neo-liberalism has done to the world that provides the opportunity to show that another world is indeed possible.

*Tim Costello, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith are the co-founders of Global Labor Strategies, a resource center providing research and analysis on globalization, trade and labor issues. GLS staff have published many previous reports on a variety of labor-related issues, including Outsource This! American Workers, the Jobs Deficit, and the Fair Globalization Solution, Contingent Workers Fight For Fairness, and Fight Where You Stand!: Why Globalization Matters in Your Community and Workplace. They have also written and produced the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary Global Village or Global Pillage? GLS has offices in New York, Boston, and Montevideo, Uruguay. For more on GLS visit: or email

Let there be debate on Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with USA in parliament, public forums

January 27, 2009

Editorial, NewAge, January 27, 2009

RESUMPTION of talks between Dhaka and Washington regarding a trade and investment deal should necessarily hinge on the possibility of securing a fully preferential market access for Bangladesh in the United States. At least in the immediate term, Bangladesh’s key interest, as regards trade with the United States, remains tariff free market access for apparels without any quota restrictions. The last summit of the World Trade Organisation, the global trade forum with about 150 member countries, in its declaration promised as much. The rich countries agreed to provide undeterred market access to products from Least Developed Countries, of which Bangladesh is one. But it stipulates that countries facing difficulties may refrain and provide access 97 per cent of the goods produced by poor countries.

Although Bangladesh is entitled to preferential arrangements from developed countries, and many respect this entitlement, the United States has consistently refused to grant this preference. This market issue happens to be one of Bangladesh’s prime concerns at almost any multilateral trade talks particularly at the World Trade Organisation. That the new government is willing to enter into talks with Washington on a pending — there have been three rounds of negotiations previously — deal, the ‘Trade and Investment Framework Agreement’, according to a report in New Age on Monday, at this juncture raises certain concerns.

Finalising a bilateral agreement, before completion of the ongoing round of global trade talks, must not preclude the scope for Bangladesh to enhance its market access through the multilateral negotiations under the global forum. There are certainly cases of bilateral trade and investment treaties benefiting both parties and as such Bangladesh has all the more to gain from this deal. But as is often the case in bilateral trade agreements, the weaker side — in terms of economic, military and intellectual clout — loses out to the stronger. In this particular case, Bangladesh not only lacks resources and skills to conduct efficient negotiations but the state of the two economies affords the Americans to strike a harder bargain and demand full reciprocity. ‘Equal’ treatment for two unequal parties is inherently unjust and would certainly be unjust to Bangladesh as well.

Besides the point that this framework agreement’s provisions, at least as they were in the initial draft of this agreement, undermine political authority, there are a host of other concerns regarding the provisions of that text. While we agree that labour standards can generally be part of trade pacts with the United States, we have strong concerns regarding implementation of intellectual property rights. It is understandable that writers and artistes receive their rightful dues but it also poses strong obstacles for people of the poor countries in their access to knowledge, healthcare and technology.

The government should be careful in proceeding with its talks with the United States so that a bilateral agreement does not compromise the potential of privileges that Bangladesh has in other forums, particularly in the form of special and differential treatment under the World Trade Organisation. The negotiations on this framework agreement have been going on since 2003 but as of yet there has been no public disclosure of the draft agreement to encourage debates and consultations among the more conscious and aware sections of the citizenry. This time, we expect that the draft of the agreement will at least be debated in the parliament in line with the culture of transparency and accountability that the United States itself so often proclaims a commitment to.

Risk, uncertainty surround proposed Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with USA, say economists

January 27, 2009

Khawaza Main Uddin, NewAge, January 27, 2009

Dhaka will not get any additional opportunity to export more goods or send more manpower to the US if it signs the proposed draft of the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with Washington, observed eminent economists.

Moreover, they pointed out that the proposed bilateral agreement itself could impose certain restrictions on Bangladesh that might hamper its business interests elsewhere unless the deal allows due flexibility in allowing it to freely negotiate in the international arena.

In view of the risks and uncertainties surrounding such an agreement between unequal partners, the economists suggested that the Awami League-led government, which has expressed willingness to resume TIFA talks with America, should hold public discussions on the draft of the agreement to ensure transparency and tap the knowledge of its experts and economists.

Apprehensions of getting a raw deal by joining the TIFA, and especially of probable political repercussions, are said to have in the past prompted the governments not to make any hurried deal with the world’s lone superpower, although the negotiations that began in 2003 were secretly continued.

If Dhaka is to reap the maximum benefit from the TIFA, it should take adequate national preparations for carrying out effective negotiations and exploiting opportunities without tumbling into any pitfall.

‘There was no scope, in the earlier draft, to increase the export of goods and send Bangladeshi manpower to America. Instead, the facilities and waivers that Bangladesh as a least developed country is entitled to from the US under the WTO rules may be lost if we sign TIFA in the proposed form,’ said Ananya Raihan, executive director of research organisation DNet.

Dhaka may gain in terms of raising the flow of US investment into Bangladesh’s service sectors, especially the energy sector, but it will put at risk the concessions it deserves under rules of the World Trade Organisation and other international forums in the areas of intellectual property, labour and environmental standards and also the pharmaceuticals industry, he added.

He also questioned the provision, as proposed by Washington, of addressing corruption and bribery under the framework agreement. ‘Many things related to the maximisation of national interests depend on how the government negotiates with the US. For example, 100 per cent market access to the US market can be the issue of bargaining in the bilateral forum,’ said Quazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, president of Bangladesh Economic Association.

He, however, welcomed the government’s admission in public that it would resume the talks on TIFA as the first step towards guaranteeing transparency in striking a deal.

The US offered 97 per cent market access for products from least developed countries such as Bangladesh during the Hong Kong ministerial meeting of the WTO in 2005, but the American authorities have managed to stop duty-free entry of Bangladesh’s exportable items under the coverage of three per cent restriction.

Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, recommends public debate on the draft of the agreement, and also addressing the concerns expressed earlier by Bangladeshi experts over the ‘possible pressure’ that might come from the joint council to be formed in line with the agreement.

‘We have to be careful about including any provision in the agreement that can adversely affect our domestic industries. We also have to consider the potential gains such as market access that Bangladesh can ensure through better negotiation,’ he said, adding that the government should also scrutinise the experience of countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Afghanistan which signed TIFA deals with the US.

Zaid Bakht, research director of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, recommends more focus on skilful negotiations for realising Bangladesh’s demands instead of refusing such an agreement.

‘It is natural for the weaker nation to have apprehensions in joining talks with a bigger one. We have to assert our position, maintain an independent attitude and thus gain the maximum benefit from the agreement,’ he said, and suggested that the government should make the draft of the TIFA public and seek opinions from all concerned.

Bangladesh government should tread carefully when negotiating Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) with USA

January 27, 2009

Oxfam GB, an international non-governmental organisation, puts forward its analysis along with recommendations regarding the proposed Trade and Investment Framework Agreement between the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and the United States of America

IF NEGOTIATED without hampering the country’s economic interests, different bilateral, bi-regional and regional trade and investment agreements could enhance the welfare of developing and least developed countries. However, evidences suggest that many of the trade and investment agreements are not in favour of the interests of developing and least developed countries and, more importantly, space and opportunities for least developed countries, provided by developed countries, in terms of negotiation have always been bare minimum. Henceforth, it is imperative to take appropriate measures before signing any trade and investment agreement and, as an LDC, Bangladesh needs to critically analyse the agreement to protect her interest.

In between 2003 and 2005, there were three rounds of trade negotiations between Bangladesh and the United States of America in relation to finalising the clauses of the ‘Trade and Investment Framework Agreement’. Since 2005 no negotiation took place between these two parties on the agreement but in 2007, during the caretaker government’s tenure, the US requested Bangladesh to re-examine the prospect of resuming negotiations on the framework agreement which resulted in no specific outcome. Oxfam in Bangladesh has examined the clauses of the draft text of the proposed framework agreement along with some existing similar agreements between the US and other countries. Subsequently, several concerns have come up after the initial examination that might have adverse effect on Bangladesh’s trade interests and would not serve Bangladesh’s purpose.

Paragraph 14 of the preamble of the draft text takes into account the needs for elimination of non-tariff barriers in order to facilitate greater access to the markets of both countries. Although it would be beneficial for Bangladesh if the US eliminates its existing non-tariff barriers on products and services from Bangladesh, reciprocal elimination by Bangladesh may not serve her interests. Considering the special development, trade and financial needs, Bangladesh must be given the mandate to impose non-tariff barriers to protect its nascent industries from the competition with industries of a developed country. Moreover, as a least developed country, Bangladesh also needs the recognition to protect her industries through applying tariff whereas the US should provide 100 per cent duty-free quota-free market access to Bangladesh considering the spirit of agreed framework in multilateral negotiations. Consequently, there should not be any reciprocity in eliminating trade barriers between under the agreement as development statuses of these two countries are not similar to have a reciprocal arrangement.

Paragraph 15 of the preamble recognises the importance of providing adequate and effective protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (obligations contained in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and other intellectual property rights conventions). However, it could be noted that Bangladesh and other least developed countries have been provided a waiver until July 1, 2013 to provide protection for trademarks, copyright, patents and other intellectual property under the WTO and do not have to provide patent protection for pharmaceuticals until 2016. However, if the framework agreement is signed in its present form, Bangladesh might be pressured to pass intellectual property laws and enforce them, which would create extra burden on different domestic industries that are dependent on copying different intellectual properties at their early stage of operation. Pharmaceutical industry in Bangladesh is one such industry that is growing and increasingly exporting due to the waiver under the WTO agreement. In contrast, there is a strong lobby group of pharmaceutical industries in the US that lobby to ensure the establishment of intellectual property rights regimes in different countries. Consequently, having an intellectual property clause in the agreement could go against the interest of Bangladesh as the country has different interests than the US. For instance, as most of the computer users in Bangladesh are dependent on using software that are not patented due to high cost of licensed software, the intellectual property rights clause would adversely affect computer users in Bangladesh.

Paragraph 16 of the preamble recognises the importance of providing adequate and effective protection and enforcement of worker rights in accordance with each nation’s own labour laws and of improving the observance of internationally recognised core labour standards. Although workers’ right is very important, its inclusion in the agreement should not create an opportunity for the US to convince Bangladesh in introducing labour standards in line with those of the US for the purposes of protecting US domestic industries. In this regard, Bangladesh should stick to the domestic labour laws and standards along with the standards mentioned in the convention of International Labour Organisation rather than any suggested labour standards for protectionist purposes. Simultaneously, under this agreement, a programme to improve working conditions and labour standards could be launched in Bangladesh through US finance so that Bangladesh can effectively protect and enforce worker rights.

Paragraph 17 of the preamble desires to ensure that trade and environmental policies are mutually supportive in the furtherance of sustainable development. Again, even though sustainable environmental policies are necessary, Bangladesh should cautiously look at the linkage between environment with a trade and investment agreement whether such linkage is aimed for protectionist purposes. As Bangladesh does not have similar environmental standards or policies like the US because of its early stages of development in many industrial sectors, inclusion of the aforementioned text might create an opportunity to impose so-called ‘environmental tariff’ or other trade barriers on Bangladeshi products that fall short of following environmental standards as suggested by the US. There is a fear that environmental policies might be used as an excuse by some economic sectors of the US to gain protection against competition from Bangladesh. Therefore, during negotiations, Bangladesh should emphasise on seeking cooperation to build her capacity for formulating environmental policies so that Bangladesh can effectively enforce multilateral environmental agreements.

The second article of the draft mentions establishing a United States-Bangladesh Council on Trade and Investment, which will be chaired by the secretary to Bangladesh commerce and the representative from office of the United States Trade Representative and composed of representatives from both countries. Articles three and four of the draft mentioned some terms of reference for the council to work on different issues. In this regard, it should be noted that the framework agreement between the US and Malaysia, the Malaysian government takes into account the role of political authority by engaging the minister for international trade and industry as the head of its delegation at that council. However, the process of establishing the joint council on trade and investment in case of the proposed agreement is not clear. Therefore, considering the importance of the agreement, the council and its work need to be accountable and transparent along with its establishment in an accountable and transparent manner engaging different stakeholders.

Our recommendations are as follows:

* Bangladesh should be inclined more towards the multilateral trading system and should increase its negotiating capacity at the multilateral negotiation forums.

* Bangladesh should sign any bilateral trade agreement if it is ensured that the country would get more economic benefits than it would from the multilateral system.

* Bangladesh should keep in mind that bilateral trade agreement must not diminish the advantages the country is entitled to under a multilateral trading system.

* Before signing any bilateral agreement, it should be ensured that the agreement would facilitate technology transfer, employment generation or reduction of unemployment, increased export and development.

* Instead of trying to get the political support from strong nations, Bangladesh should avoid all secrecies and finalise any bilateral agreement on the basis of national consensus.

* Instead of engaging only the commerce ministry or any single institution in negotiating trade and investment treaties, the Bangladesh government should engage the foreign ministry, other related ministries and non-governmental organisations for protecting country’s interests.

The analysis was sent as part of a letter to the commerce minister of Bangladesh.